Saturday, February 27, 2010

Charlie Munger On Pooping Dogs

Warren Buffett is out with his latest annual letter. Here's Buffett telling a story where his partner Charlie Munger has the best analysis of an acquisition:
I can’t resist telling you a true story from long ago. We owned stock in a large well-run bank that for decades had been statutorily prevented from acquisitions. Eventually, the law was changed and our bank immediately began looking for possible purchases. Its managers – fine people and able bankers – not unexpectedly began to behave like teenage boys who had just discovered girls.

They soon focused on a much smaller bank, also well-run and having similar financial characteristics in such areas as return on equity, interest margin, loan quality, etc. Our bank sold at a modest price (that’s why we had bought into it), hovering near book value and possessing a very low price/earnings ratio. Alongside, though, the small-bank owner was being wooed by other large banks in the state and was holding out for a price close to three times book value. Moreover, he wanted stock, not cash.

Naturally, our fellows caved in and agreed to this value-destroying deal. “We need to show that we are in the hunt. Besides, it’s only a small deal,” they said, as if only major harm to shareholders would have been a legitimate reason for holding back. Charlie’s reaction at the time: “Are we supposed to applaud because the dog that fouls our lawn is a Chihuahua rather than a Saint Bernard?”

The seller of the smaller bank – no fool – then delivered one final demand in his negotiations. “After the merger,” he in effect said, perhaps using words that were phrased more diplomatically than these, “I’m going to be a large shareholder of your bank, and it will represent a huge portion of my net worth. You have to promise me, therefore, that you’ll never again do a deal this dumb.”

Yes, the merger went through. The owner of the small bank became richer, we became poorer, and the managers of the big bank – newly bigger – lived happily ever after.
BTW, I think Munger is a much more astute judge of investment opportunities than Buffett. If you look at a lot of Buffett hits in the relatively early years, they came out of California, where Munger lived and was generally familiar with the operations.

If I had to choose between giving money to Buffett or Munger to manage, it would be Munger, no question.

This doesn't mean that Buffett isn't an Einstein of investing, but it does mean that Munger is probably the god of investing. Damn Right! is a great biography of Munger.

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