Category: Investing

Racking The Shotgun: Quickly Sorting Those Who Know from Those Who Act Like They Know

One of the great challenges we all face in life is distinguishing between two classes of people: people who know and people who sound like they know. It's called the Batesian Mimicry problem and once you see it, you'll start to notice it everywhere from colleagues and boardrooms to talking pundits on TV.

From Elon Musk's advice on how to tell if people are lying to how to win an argument, the problem is so pervasive and so fundamental to succeeding in life that I keep a running file whenever people have a clever way to help quickly determine who knows. An unlikely book offered another technique called Racking the Shotgun and it comes from a professional gambler.

80/20 Sales and Marketing by Perry Marshall tells the story of John Paul Mendocha, a friend of Marshall's. At age 17, Mendocha dropped out of high school, hitchhiked to Vegas, and became a professional gambler.

A teenager, however, needs some street smarts so he found himself someone who would take him under his wing for a split of the profits. Mendocha found Rob, a seasoned gambler.

“Son, the first lesson about gambling is, you have to play games you can win. You need to play people who are not as good at poker as you are. Those people are called marks.”

One time, Rob wanted to show John something so they got into the car and headed to the Cabaret. They walked in and sat down amongst the blaring music, dancing women, and copious amounts of alcohol. Rob had a sawed off shotgun in his coat.

He pulled the shotgun out, slipped it under the table. He pressed the lever, popping the chamber open as if to load it. But instead of inserting a shell, he loudly snapped it back shut, with that sharp, signature ratcheting sound shotguns are famous for— what enthusiasts call “racking the shotgun.”

A few heads in the crowd twisted around, trying to see where the racking sound had come from. Everyone else was oblivious, absorbed in their haze of nightclub revelry. Then Rob slipped the gun back into his jacket.

The owner of the club came over to their table and asked if everything was ok.

“Everything’s fine, Bill. Just teaching the lad a lesson,” Rob replied. Then he leaned over and said to John, “John, the people who turned around— those guys are NOT marks. Do not play poker with them. “John, your job is to play cards with everybody else.”

Investing: The Rules of the Road

Investing money can seem a little rudderless at times.

One day you hear that stocks are risky and the next that they’re indispensable. Some days it seems like stocks only go up and sometimes that they only go down. Real estate used to seem like an automatic path to wealth, and then the housing crisis hit. For the uninitiated, it sometimes seems there are no central truths. And unlike certain fields, we all have to deal with money. We can’t “opt out” from financial concerns unless we plan to live in a monastery, and it is useful for all of us to understand the basic ideas.

Investing is not a science but a craft, and a craftsman needs tools. In the case of investing, the tools are mostly mental. If we accumulate a few simple mental tools, we can start evaluating the claims of experts, salesmen, or simply well-intentioned friends.

The Rules of the Road

(1) The value of an asset depends entirely on the net cash it will
generate from now to the hereafter.

This goes for a stock, an apartment house, a convenience store, a bakery, or an iPhone app startup. An asset only has value (in a financial sense) if it can generate net cash flow to its owner. The amount and timing of that cash determines the value of the business. The more cash to be expected and the sooner it’s expected to come, the more valuable the asset is today. This is the fundamental truth about investing. Nothing escapes the orbit of future cash flows.

The other determinant of value is interest rates: The average future interest that could have earned if you bought a “risk-free” asset is the opportunity cost of the asset you’re considering purchasing today. That risk-free interest rate determines the value of an asset’s future cash flows to you today. (Although we don’t recommend trying to compute the figure out to three decimal places.) If average risk-free interest rates are 6% over time and I offer you a chance to buy an apartment house that pays you 4% on cost, is that a good buy? You better feel confident that the 4% will grow over time, right? This basic form of reasoning can be applied to all types of cash-producing assets.

This is the thing you should be thinking about when you’re instead thinking about what the Fed will be doing or what Jim Cramer said on TV or what the hot industry is or what the CEO of some company had for breakfast. Do you have any idea what the business or property will earn over the next five, ten, or twenty years in relation to what it earns now? This Grand Unifying Theory of investing gets discussed surprisingly little.

It also generates some sub-conclusions that aren’t always recognized by lay investors and are frequently forgotten by professionals.

(A) What an asset has earned in the past does not determine its value. In stocks, looking at the last ten years of earnings is a useful exercise in trying to understand what type of business you’re dealing with, but while it’s a good guide, past earnings do not generate value. Future earnings do, and that goes for all types of assets. This means you must develop a view about the future, which we’ll address again in point (2) below.

(B) An asset that never earns any net profit after all expenses has no financial value. Please let that sink in. It is common for businesses to obscure this basic fact, and promote all sorts of alternative methodologies with which you’re supposed to see value. Book value, EBITDA, number of page views, number of users, brand recognition, and years of managerial experience do not, in and of themselves, tell you about the value of a business or an asset. The bare fact is that an asset must eventually generate net cash flows to its owner which are commensurate with the price paid in order for the investment to be worthwhile. Investing on another basis is, by definition, speculation.

(C) If you have no idea what an asset will earn in the future (at least in a general sense), then you have no idea what it’s worth. And if you do not know what the asset is worth, then you have no idea whether you are over-paying or under-paying for it, and as an intellectually honest person, you should consider both possibilities at least equally likely.

(D) Any future cash flows out of an asset must also be subtracted in determining today’s value. If a business is going to lose money for 10 years and only then start making it, it’s worth a hell of a lot less than one which will make the same amount of money starting this year. This is another idea which gets surprisingly little play in relation to its obvious importance.


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(2) Buying a share of stock is a buying share of the underlying business.

Although we’re discussing general investment concepts, the stock market needs a bit more attention because of its seemingly abstract nature. No one gets confused as to what they’re buying when they invest in a local dry-cleaner. Most fixed income instruments are priced in a fairly straightforward manner. But when it comes to businesses traded on the public exchanges, which we call stocks, all sorts of weird theories abound.

Stocks, for all of their labels and all of the strange fears and speculations around them, are no more than a piece of an underlying business pie. When you buy stock in a business, you are buying the right to the net cash flows that its assets produce. Stocks do not escape the orbit of financial gravity no matter what the Fed is doing or what CNBC is saying. And buying into an index fund that owns many stocks means that you’re now part-owner in all of the underlying businesses; your return comes from the success of their business operations. If American business as a whole keeps on trucking, the index fund will reflect their success, assuming you paid a rational price. That’s why averaging into the indexes is such a common recommendation for non-professional investors. Buying individual businesses in the form of stocks carries a heavier burden of proof and much more specialized work.

One corollary to this idea is that stock prices tend to move around much more than intrinsic business values. If you were to take the ten year business record of any of a number of very stable corporations and then guess their high and low stock prices in the same period, you would almost certainly be surprised at the degree of variation. The reason for this can be found in point (3).

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(3) Investing in any asset with uncertain cash flows requires an
element of speculation about the future.

Discerning an asset’s cash flows requires that we make intelligent guesses about a cloudy future. This idea has some deep corollaries:

(A) The more speculation needed to determine the value of the asset, the riskier it is all else equal, due to the higher probability of getting our estimates wrong. In the case of a 1-Year U.S. Treasury bill, we don’t have to offer any speculation beyond assuming that the U.S. government will be solvent and paying 12 months from now and that the U.S. dollar will continue to be accepted as legal tender. (If this ceases to be true, we’re all in big trouble.)

In the case of a biotechnology startup, on the other hand, our entire valuation is going to be based on speculation. In essence, the whole exercise of valuing such a start-up would be making difficult guesses about the future. The probability that we get all of our guesses correct approaches zero, although if we’re correct enough about one or two important factors we might still make money. But we’ll need great luck in doing so, whereas with the Treasury bill, we hardly need any luck at all.

(B) Investing in uncertain assets, including any kind of business-based investment like a farm or a technology stock, involves some difficult speculation, so it’s easy to predict that at times, investors will get caught up in their enthusiasms and mis-price assets. Charlie Munger has commented that stocks are valued partly like Treasury bonds, with obvious cash flows estimated and discounted at rational rates, and partly like art or collectibles, with speculation that the price will go higher or lower because of popularity, trend, or hope. The riskiest assets are the ones valued primarily on speculation because of our lack of ability to see into their economic future. That’s why a corporate bond tends to be less risky than a stock — you only need to establish that the corporation will be solvent for the bond to be a good investment, whereas with the stock, you must make much more complicated estimates.

(C) We know from watching horse-race betting, casino gambling, and lottery participation that people are frequently willing to speculate on odds-against bets that can only hurt them financially in the long-run. We observe the same behavior in the stock market and in other markets as well. (There was, for example, a speculative farming boom in the 1980s.) Financial markets cannot be perfectly efficient because of the speculative element. As with (B) above, more uncertain assets tend to have a greater speculative element attached.

(D) Assets with predictable cash flows tend to be inherently lower-risk than ones without predictable cash flows. Let’s use two different types of businesses to understand this point.

We can be essentially certain that over the next year, Visa and MasterCard will make a tremendous amount of money which is closely related to the amount they made last year — their cash flows are based on the number of transactions made on their cards and the amount of money they collect per transaction. Both elements tend to be extremely stable on a day to day and year to year basis, with a tendency towards growth as new cards make it into circulation. Unless hundreds of millions of people stop using their credit and debit cards or million of merchants find a way to pay a lot less to these intermediaries (who collect very little to start), the businesses will maintain a useful degree of economic predictability. The number of transactions you made on your card last month and the month before pretty closely predicts how much you’ll use it this month and the following one.

As we move out further to year 2, we can still be pretty sure that these characteristics will continue to hold, and thus we can predict with useful accuracy the kind of money Visa/Mastercard will make. The same goes for year 3. However, the longer we continue this exercise, the more our accuracy declines. Although things look pretty good this year, next year, and the year after, what about 30 years from now? By then, one can speculate on the possibility of certain changes to the financial system which might affect the economics of Visa/Mastercard. Our earnings estimate 30 years out is certain to be inaccurate even for a predictable business.

The opposite case is Twitter. Twitter has never shown a net profit to its shareholders and has not established a consistent business model which would allow it to do so. Thus, it would be very difficult to say what Twitter’s earnings might be in the next year, let alone 30 years from now. On this basis, investing in the common stock of Twitter contains a much larger speculative element than Visa/Mastercard. An investment in Visa/Mastercard at a fair price in relation to future earnings can be said to have far less risk than an investment in Twitter. Notice that we don’t come to this conclusion by saying that Visa/Mastercard are riskless, that we can predict their earnings forever, or that Twitter will never be a profitable investment. We are simply ranking potential investments on a sliding scale based on the predictability of their future cash flows. Any estimates will be necessarily imprecise, but they still have great value to us as investors.

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(4) The price you pay determines the return you get.
Lower prices = higher returns.

You’ll often hear fables about how now is the time to invest because “The market has done really well over the past few years” or because “My friend has made a lot of money on this stock, I think it’s a good investment,” or some similar statement about other kinds of financial assets; real estate properties, oil royalties, McDonald’s franchises, etc.

Conversely, one frequently hears things like “That stock’s gone way down recently, it seems pretty risky” or “My friend bought a bunch of real estate that went way down, I think real estate is risky” and other notions to that effect.

These thoughts are 180 degrees wrong because they fail to understand the point that low prices create high future returns and that high prices create low future returns. (“High” and “low” being in relation to underlying value.) If a stock trades at 50% of its recent high price, then you are buying the same future cash flows for half the price. If a stock trades at 200% of a recent low price, then the opposite is true; you’re getting exactly half the value you would have before.

You should seek to buy assets with future cash earnings you can (roughly) estimate at prices that offer a fair return. The rest is almost always noise.


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(5) Everyone has a unique circle of competence which allows them to
understand certain things best and other things not at all.

We discussed above in point (3) that certain investment situations are inherently speculative, as with the case of Twitter common stock. But even within the realm of knowable investment choices, each investor has his or her own unique circle of competence which they bring to the analysis. In the circle are the things that, through life experience and/or accumulated study, one can fairly evaluate and expect to end up in the right ballpark. Outside of the circle are things we don't have the experience to understand.

Although this point seems simple to the point of banality, it is constantly violated even by smart and financially-savvy people. Many an expert in construction businesses or plumbing businesses or restaurant businesses have tried their hand at buying apartment houses or energy stocks only to find out that their expertise did not carry over. And it is thus for all of us: We are prisoners to our talents, and we’re wise to think long and hard about what we really know and don’t know.

For example, if you do not have the ability to read financial statements, understand microeconomics, and assess the future underlying cash flows of an individual business, are stocks truly in your circle of competence? If you don’t know cap rates from Captain America, is it wise for you to try to get rich buying real estate properties? Unless and until we learn to be honest with ourselves, we will make mistakes that we don’t need to make.

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Investing does not have to be rocket science. Once you understand the central concepts and begin learning to apply them, all it takes is discipline and intellectual honesty. Anyone can be a successful investor, broadly defined, by sticking to their circle of competence and not straying outside of it, by not speculating when they think they’re investing, and by always looking to pay a fair price in relation to what they’re buying. These three central tenets, closely followed, can allow any intelligent person to operate safely in the financial world.

Still Interested? Read more about Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, whose ideas on investing have influenced generations of wise and successful investors. The best books we know of on the topic are The Intelligent Investor, Poor Charlie's Almanack, Berkshire Hathaway's Letters to Shareholders, and John Bogle's book The Little Book of Common Sense Investing to learn about indexing.

Will Bonner And Charlie Munger on Getting The Best Odds

In Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets: Surviving the Public Spectacle in Finance and Politics, Will Bonner writes:

…you don't win by predicting the future; you win by getting the odds right. You can be right about the future and still not make any money. At the racetrack, for example, the favorite horse may be the one most likely to win, but since everyone wants to bet on the favorite, how likely is it that betting on the favorite will make you money? The horse to bet on is the one more likely to win than most people expect. That's the one that gives you the best odds. That's the bet that pays off over time.

And here is Charlie Munger speaking about the same topic:

The model I like to sort of simplify the notion of what goes o­n in a market for common stocks is the pari-mutuel system at the racetrack. If you stop to think about it, a pari-mutuel system is a market. Everybody goes there and bets and the odds change based o­n what's bet. That's what happens in the stock market.

Any damn fool can see that a horse carrying a light weight with a wonderful win rate and a good post position etc., etc. is way more likely to win than a horse with a terrible record and extra weight and so o­n and so on. But if you look at the odds, the bad horse pays 100 to 1, whereas the good horse pays 3 to 2. Then it's not clear which is statistically the best bet using the mathematics of Fermat and Pascal. The prices have changed in such a way that it's very hard to beat the system.

And then the track is taking 17% off the top. So not only do you have to outwit all the other betters, but you've got to outwit them by such a big margin that on average, you can afford to take 17% of your gross bets off the top and give it to the house before the rest of your money can be put to work.

Basically, It’s Over: A Parable About How One Nation Came To Financial Ruin

An excellent parable by Charlie Munger on how one nation came to financial ruin.

In the early 1700s, Europeans discovered in the Pacific Ocean a large, unpopulated island with a temperate climate, rich in all nature's bounty except coal, oil, and natural gas. Reflecting its lack of civilization, they named this island “Basicland.”

The Europeans rapidly repopulated Basicland, creating a new nation. They installed a system of government like that of the early United States. There was much encouragement of trade, and no internal tariff or other impediment to such trade. Property rights were greatly respected and strongly enforced. The banking system was simple. It adapted to a national ethos that sought to provide a sound currency, efficient trade, and ample loans for credit-worthy businesses while strongly discouraging loans to the incompetent or for ordinary daily purchases.

Moreover, almost no debt was used to purchase or carry securities or other investments, including real estate and tangible personal property. The one exception was the widespread presence of secured, high-down-payment, fully amortizing, fixed-rate loans on sound houses, other real estate, vehicles, and appliances, to be used by industrious persons who lived within their means. Speculation in Basicland's security and commodity markets was always rigorously discouraged and remained small. There was no trading in options on securities or in derivatives other than “plain vanilla” commodity contracts cleared through responsible exchanges under laws that greatly limited use of financial leverage.

In its first 150 years, the government of Basicland spent no more than 7 percent of its gross domestic product in providing its citizens with essential services such as fire protection, water, sewage and garbage removal, some education, defense forces, courts, and immigration control. A strong family-oriented culture emphasizing duty to relatives, plus considerable private charity, provided the only social safety net.

The tax system was also simple. In the early years, governmental revenues came almost entirely from import duties, and taxes received matched government expenditures. There was never much debt outstanding in the form of government bonds.

As Adam Smith would have expected, GDP per person grew steadily. Indeed, in the modern area it grew in real terms at 3 percent per year, decade after decade, until Basicland led the world in GDP per person. As this happened, taxes on sales, income, property, and payrolls were introduced. Eventually total taxes, matched by total government expenditures, amounted to 35 percent of GDP. The revenue from increased taxes was spent on more government-run education and a substantial government-run social safety net, including medical care and pensions.

A regular increase in such tax-financed government spending, under systems hard to “game” by the unworthy, was considered a moral imperative—a sort of egality-promoting national dividend—so long as growth of such spending was kept well below the growth rate of the country's GDP per person.
Basicland also sought to avoid trouble through a policy that kept imports and exports in near balance, with each amounting to about 25 percent of GDP. Some citizens were initially nervous because 60 percent of imports consisted of absolutely essential coal and oil. But, as the years rolled by with no terrible consequences from this dependency, such worry melted away.

Basicland was exceptionally creditworthy, with no significant deficit ever allowed. And the present value of large “off-book” promises to provide future medical care and pensions appeared unlikely to cause problems, given Basicland's steady 3 percent growth in GDP per person and restraint in making unfunded promises. Basicland seemed to have a system that would long assure its felicity and long induce other nations to follow its example—thus improving the welfare of all humanity.

But even a country as cautious, sound, and generous as Basicland could come to ruin if it failed to address the dangers that can be caused by the ordinary accidents of life. These dangers were significant by 2012, when the extreme prosperity of Basicland had created a peculiar outcome: As their affluence and leisure time grew, Basicland's citizens more and more whiled away their time in the excitement of casino gambling. Most casino revenue now came from bets on security prices under a system used in the 1920s in the United States and called “the bucket shop system.”

The winnings of the casinos eventually amounted to 25 percent of Basicland's GDP, while 22 percent of all employee earnings in Basicland were paid to persons employed by the casinos (many of whom were engineers needed elsewhere). So much time was spent at casinos that it amounted to an average of five hours per day for every citizen of Basicland, including newborn babies and the comatose elderly. Many of the gamblers were highly talented engineers attracted partly by casino poker but mostly by bets available in the bucket shop systems, with the bets now called “financial derivatives.”

Many people, particularly foreigners with savings to invest, regarded this situation as disgraceful. After all, they reasoned, it was just common sense for lenders to avoid gambling addicts. As a result, almost all foreigners avoided holding Basicland's currency or owning its bonds. They feared big trouble if the gambling-addicted citizens of Basicland were suddenly faced with hardship.

And then came the twin shocks. Hydrocarbon prices rose to new highs. And in Basicland's export markets there was a dramatic increase in low-cost competition from developing countries. It was soon obvious that the same exports that had formerly amounted to 25 percent of Basicland's GDP would now only amount to 10 percent. Meanwhile, hydrocarbon imports would amount to 30 percent of GDP, instead of 15 percent. Suddenly Basicland had to come up with 30 percent of its GDP every year, in foreign currency, to pay its creditors.

How was Basicland to adjust to this brutal new reality? This problem so stumped Basicland's politicians that they asked for advice from Benfranklin Leekwanyou Vokker, an old man who was considered so virtuous and wise that he was often called the “Good Father.” Such consultations were rare. Politicians usually ignored the Good Father because he made no campaign contributions.

Among the suggestions of the Good Father were the following. First, he suggested that Basicland change its laws. It should strongly discourage casino gambling, partly through a complete ban on the trading in financial derivatives, and it should encourage former casino employees—and former casino patrons—to produce and sell items that foreigners were willing to buy. Second, as this change was sure to be painful, he suggested that Basicland's citizens cheerfully embrace their fate. After all, he observed, a man diagnosed with lung cancer is willing to quit smoking and undergo surgery because it is likely to prolong his life.

The views of the Good Father drew some approval, mostly from people who admired the fiscal virtue of the Romans during the Punic Wars. But others, including many of Basicland's prominent economists, had strong objections. These economists had intense faith that any outcome at all in a free market—even wild growth in casino gambling—is constructive. Indeed, these economists were so committed to their basic faith that they looked forward to the day when Basicland would expand real securities trading, as a percentage of securities outstanding, by a factor of 100, so that it could match the speculation level present in the United States just before onslaught of the Great Recession that began in 2008.

The strong faith of these Basicland economists in the beneficence of hypergambling in both securities and financial derivatives stemmed from their utter rejection of the ideas of the great and long-dead economist who had known the most about hyperspeculation, John Maynard Keynes. Keynes had famously said, “When the capital development of a country is the byproduct of the operations of a casino, the job is likely to be ill done.” It was easy for these economists to dismiss such a sentence because securities had been so long associated with respectable wealth, and financial derivatives seemed so similar to securities.

Basicland's investment and commercial bankers were hostile to change. Like the objecting economists, the bankers wanted change exactly opposite to change wanted by the Good Father. Such bankers provided constructive services to Basicland. But they had only moderate earnings, which they deeply resented because Basicland's casinos—which provided no such constructive services—reported immoderate earnings from their bucket-shop systems. Moreover, foreign investment bankers had also reported immoderate earnings after building their own bucket-shop systems—and carefully obscuring this fact with ingenious twaddle, including claims that rational risk-management systems were in place, supervised by perfect regulators. Naturally, the ambitious Basicland bankers desired to prosper like the foreign bankers. And so they came to believe that the Good Father lacked any understanding of important and eternal causes of human progress that the bankers were trying to serve by creating more bucket shops in Basicland.

Of course, the most effective political opposition to change came from the gambling casinos themselves. This was not surprising, as at least one casino was located in each legislative district. The casinos resented being compared with cancer when they saw themselves as part of a long-established industry that provided harmless pleasure while improving the thinking skills of its customers.

As it worked out, the politicians ignored the Good Father one more time, and the Basicland banks were allowed to open bucket shops and to finance the purchase and carry of real securities with extreme financial leverage. A couple of economic messes followed, during which every constituency tried to avoid hardship by deflecting it to others. Much counterproductive governmental action was taken, and the country's credit was reduced to tatters. Basicland is now under new management, using a new governmental system. It also has a new nickname: Sorrowland.

Charlie Munger Explains Why Bureaucracy is not Shareholder Friendly

Charlie Munger, the billionaire partner of Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway, explains why bureaucracy is not shareholder friendly:

The great defect of scale, of course, which makes the game interesting—so that the big people don't always win—is that as you get big, you get the bureaucracy. And with the bureaucracy comes the territoriality—which is again grounded in human nature.

And the incentives are perverse. For example, if you worked for AT&T in my day, it was a great bureaucracy. Who in the hell was really thinking about the shareholder or anything else? And in a bureaucracy, you think the work is done when it goes out of your in-basket into somebody else's in-basket. But, of course, it isn't. It's not done until AT&T delivers what it's supposed to deliver. So you get big, fat, dumb, unmotivated bureaucracies.

They also tend to become somewhat corrupt. In other words, if I've got a department and you've got a department and we kind of share power running this thing, there's sort of an unwritten rule: “If you won't bother me, I won't bother you and we're both happy.” So you get layers of management and associated costs that nobody needs. Then, while people are justifying all these layers, it takes forever to get anything done. They're too slow to make decisions and nimbler people run circles around them.

The constant curse of scale is that it leads to big, dumb bureaucracy—which, of course, reaches its highest and worst form in government where the incentives are really awful. That doesn't mean we don't need governments—because we do. But it's a terrible problem to get big bureaucracies to behave.

So people go to stratagems. They create little decentralized units and fancy motivation and training programs. For example, for a big company, General Electric has fought bureaucracy with amazing skill. But that's because they have a combination of a genius and a fanatic running it. And they put him in young enough so he gets a long run. Of course, that's Jack Welch.

But bureaucracy is terrible …. And as things get very powerful and very big, you can get some really dysfunctional behavior. Look at Westinghouse. They blew billions of dollars on a bunch of dumb loans to real estate developers. They put some guy who'd come up by some career path—I don't know exactly what it was, but it could have been refrigerators or something—and all of a sudden, he's loaning money to real estate developers building hotels. It's a very unequal contest. And in due time, they lost all those billions of dollars.

Munger is perhaps the only person I know who reads more than we do. In fact, we get a lot of our reading off his book recommendations.

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You can learn a lot from Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. Reading all of the Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders was better than my MBA. I'm serious.