Li Lu’s Foreword to Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger

My Teacher: Charlie Munger

Author?Li Lu
May 21, 2010
Source: “Chinese Entrepreneurs”

?”China Entrepreneur” Magazine?Twenty years ago, as a young student coming to the United States, I couldn’t have imagined having a career in investments and would never have thought that I’d be fortunate enough to meet with the contemporary investment guru, Mr. Charlie Munger. In 2004, Mr. Munger became my investment partner and has since become my lifelong mentor and friend — an opportunity I would have never dared to dream about.

I graduated from Columbia University in 1996 and founded my investment company in 1997, thus starting my professional investment career. Till this day, the vast majority of individual investors and institutional investors still follow investment philosophies that are based on “bad theories.” For example, they believe in the efficient market hypothesis, and therefore believe that the volatility of stock prices is equivalent to real risk, and they place a strong emphasis on volatility when they judge your performance. In my view, the biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital. Not only is the mere drop in stock prices not risk, but it is an opportunity. Where else do you look for cheap stocks? But I found that while, on the surface, famous fund managers appear to accept the theories of Buffett and Munger and show great respect for their performance, they are in actual practice the exact opposite because their clients are also the exact opposite to Buffett and Munger. They still accept the theories that say “volatility is risk” and “the market is always right.”

A serendipitous opportunity led me to meet my lifelong mentor and friend, Mr. Charlie Munger.

Charlie and I first met at a mutual friend’s house while I was working on investments in LA after graduating from college. The first impression he gave me was “distant” — he often appeared to be absent-minded to the presence of his conversation partners and was, instead, very focused on his own topics. But this old man spoke succinctly; his words full of wisdom for you to mull over.

Seven years after we’ve known each other, at a Thanksgiving gathering in 2003, we had a long heart-to-heart conversation. I introduced every single company I have invested in, or researched, or am interested in to Charlie and he commented on each one of them. I also asked for his advice on the problems I’ve encountered. Towards the end, he told me that the problems I’ve encountered were practically all the problems of Wall Street. The problem is with the way the Wall Street thinks. Even though Berkshire Hathaway has been such a success, there isn’t any company on Wall Street that truly imitates it. If I continue on this path, my worries will never be eliminated. But if I was willing to give up this path right then, to take a path different from Wall Street, he was willing to invest. This really flattered me.

With Charlie’s help, I completely reorganized the company I founded. The structure was changed into that of the early investment partnerships of Buffett and Munger (note: Buffett and Munger each had partnerships to manage their own investment portfolios) and all the shortcomings of the typical hedge funds were eliminated. Investors who stayed made long-term investment guarantees and we no longer accepted new investors.

Thus I entered another golden period in my investment career. I was no longer restricted by the various limitations of Wall Street. The numbers still fluctuate as before, but eventual result is substantial growth. From the fourth quarter of 2004 to the end of 2009, the new fund returned an annual compound growth rate of 36% after deducting operating costs. From the inception of the fund in January 1998, the fund returned an annual compound growth rate in excess of 29%. In 12 years, the capital grew more than 20 folds.

Buffett said that, despite the countless people he has met in his life, he has never encountered anyone else like Charlie. And in the years that I’ve known Charlie, and was fortunate to be able to intimately understand him, I am also deeply convinced that. Even from all the biographies of people from all ages, I have yet to see anyone similar to him. Charlie is such a unique man — his uniqueness is in his thinking and, also, in his personality.

When Charlie thinks about things, he starts by inverting. To understand how to be happy in life, Charlie will study how to make life miserable; to examine how business become big and strong, Charlie first studies how businesses decline and die; most people care more about how to succeed in the stock market, Charlie is most concerned about why most have failed in the stock market. His way of thinking comes from the saying in the farmer’s philosophy: I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I will never go there.

Charlie constantly collects and researches the notable failures in each and every type of people, business, government, and academia, and arranges the causes of failures into a decision-making checklist for making the right decisions. Because of this, he has avoided major mistakes in his decision making in his life and in his career. The importance of this on the performance of Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway over the past 50 years cannot be emphasized enough.

Charlie’s mind is original and creative, never subject to any restrictions, shackles, or dogmas. He has the curiosity of children and possesses the qualities of a top-notch scientists and their scientific research methods. He has a strong thirst for knowledge throughout his life and is interested in practically all areas. To him, with the right approach, any problem can be understood through self-study, building innovations on the foundation laid by those who came earlier. His thinking radiates out to every corner of business, life, and [areas of] knowledge. In his view, everything in the universe is an interactive whole, and all of human knowledge are just pieces to the study of the comprehensive whole. Only by combining of these knowledge through a latticework of mental models can they become useful in decision-making and in developing the proper understanding of things. So he advocates studying all the truly important theories in all disciplines, and building on this foundation the so-called “worldly wisdom” as a tool for studying the important issues in business and investments.

Charlie’s way of thinking is based on being honest about knowledge. He believes that in this complex and changing world, there will always be limitations to human cognition and understanding, so you must use all the tools at your disposal. And, at the same time, you must constantly collect new verifiable evidences, correcting and updating your knowledge, and knowing what you know and what you don’t know.

But even so, the true insights a person can get in life is still very limited, so correct decision-making must necessarily be confined to your “circle of competence”. A “competence” that has no defined borders cannot be called a true competence. How do you define your own circle of competence? Charlie said, if I want to

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