“When any person offers you a chance to earn lots of money without risk, don’t listen to the rest of their sentence. Follow this and you’ll save yourself a lot of misery.” — Charlie Munger
This week our featured book is Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor, by Tren Griffin. For our final two posts (read the first here), we are happy to present a post from Tren Griffin explaining Charlie Munger’s take on the importance of understanding and being aware of risk in investing. The post was originally featured on Griffin’s blog, 25iq.
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A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Charlie Munger About Risk, Part 2
By Tren Griffin
“[With] a lot of judgment, a lot of discipline and an absence of hyperactivity… I think most intelligent people can take a lot of risk out of life.”
The three best ways to reduce risk are diversification, hedging and buying with a margin of safety argues Seth Klarman. Making life less risky is also assisted greatly if you make fewer decisions in domains where you do not know what you are doing after doing a significant amount of thinking about the domain involved and the decision. Doing this requires discipline since we all make psychological and emotional mistakes. One technique for avoiding risk is to place decisions that fall in the domain of “I don’t know” into a “too hard” pile if you can. Sometimes a decision is unavoidable and judgment will be required. Munger puts the investor’s objective simply: “What you have to learn is to fold early when the odds are against you, or if you have a big edge, back it heavily because you don’t get a big edge often.”
“Each person has to play the game given his own marginal utility considerations and in a way that takes into account his own psychology. If losses are going to make you miserable – and some losses are inevitable – you might be wise to utilize a very conservative patterns of investment and saving all your life. So you have to adapt your strategy to your own nature and your own talents. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all investment strategy that I can give you.” “If we’d used the leverage that some others did, Berkshire would have been much bigger… But we would have been sweating at night. It’s crazy to sweat at night.”
There is no recipe or formula for investing or dealing with risk. Everyone has a unique tolerance for risk since we are all more or less comfortable with various factors that create it. Some people find it useful to have heuristics (rules of thumb) to guide them in assessing whether a comfortable level of risk tolerance exists. Whether you can sleep soundly at night is a one heuristic. If your investments are preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep it may be wise to adjust your portfolio so that it is consistent with a comfortable sleep. Seth Klarman agrees with Charlie Munger on this point: “Investors should always keep in mind that the most important metric is not the returns achieved but the returns weighed against the risks incurred. Ultimately, nothing should be more important to investors than the ability to sleep soundly at night.”
“This is an amazingly sound place. We are more disaster-resistant than most other places. We haven’t pushed it as hard as other people would have pushed it. I don’t want to go back to Go. I’ve been to Go. A lot of our shareholders have a majority of their net worth in Berkshire, and they don’t want to go back to Go either.” “I wanted to get rich so I could be independent, and so I could do other things like give talks on the intersection of psychology and economics.”
The factors which determine the level of risk that is appropriate for any given person include life goals, age and wealth. For example, Charlie Munger left the practice of law to become an investor since he had a fierce desire to acquire wealth so he could be independent. He did not want to have other people dictate what he did in life. The value of that freedom once acquired can be so high that a person can become unwilling to put at risk the amount of money require to ensure that this independence continues. Playing the game of life with house money (money that you don’t really need to be happy) is underrated. At the point where you are playing with house money the game substantially changes since your basic financially driven level of happiness is not at stake. Of course, you can still be rich and miserable, but that comes from other problems, attitudes and mistakes.
“There is a lot to be said that when the world is going crazy, to put yourself in a position where you take risk off the table.” “Here’s one truth that perhaps your typical investment counselor would disagree with: if you’re comfortably rich and someone else is getting richer faster than you by, for example, investing in risky stocks, so what? Someone will always be getting richer faster than you. This is not a tragedy.”
There are times in life when the world will not make much sense, at least to you. As an example, the Intent bubble of 1999-2001 was a time like that. In my book on Charlie Munger I describe a decision I made to sell half of my telecom and Internet portfolio near the height of the bubble. The sale ensured that I would not be a burden to anyone in my retirement and that my children would be able to go to college with my financial assistance. Taking a little risk off the table if you plan to double down on some new risky investments is wise.
“A lot of our major capitalistic institutions that parade as really respectable, they’re just casinos in drag. What do you think a derivative trading desk is? It’s a casino in drag. People feeling they’re contributing to the economy, and they’re managing risk. They make the witch doctors look good.” “I knew a guy who had $5 million and owned his house free and clear. But he wanted to make a bit more money to support his spending, so at the peak of the internet bubble he was selling puts on internet stocks. He lost all of his money and his house and now works in a restaurant. It’s not a smart thing for the country to legalize gambling [in the stock market] and make it very accessible.” “Gambling does not become wonderful just because it pertains to commerce. It’s a casino.”
One definition of gambling is: an activity involving chance that has a negative net present value after fees. Some people find gambling entertaining, since it produces brain chemicals that can be pleasurable. I don’t personally see the point of doing something that could potentially turn into a destructive addiction and potentially wipe you out financially. In my view there are many other non-addictive things that one can do to get a dopamine buzz that are not addictive and are potentially profitable. Munger says: “intelligent people make decisions based on opportunity costs — in other words, it’s your alternatives that matter. That’s how we make all of our decisions…. Opportunity cost is a huge filter in life. If you’ve got two suitors who are really eager to have you and one is way the hell better than the other, you do not have to spend much time with the other.” Gambling fails the opportunity cost test for me. The other point Munger is making is that gambling is not a productive activity. You are not building anything valuable when you gamble. The societal contribution of the activity is negative.
“When any person offers you a chance to earn lots of money without risk, don’t listen to the rest of their sentence. Follow this and you’ll save yourself a lot of misery.”
When it comes to investing it is wise to follow the advice of Howard Marks and think of the future as a probability distribution rather than some fixed outcome that is knowable or predictable in advance. Almost nothing about the future is certain except death and taxes. No one says it better than Howard Marks when it comes to risk: “not being able to know the future doesn’t mean we can’t deal with it. It’s one thing to know what’s going to happen and something very different to have a feeling for the range of possible outcomes and the likelihood of each one happening. Saying we can’t do the former doesn’t mean we can’t do the latter.”