I listened to Michael Lee-Chin describe learning about Warren Buffett's wealth strategies he learnt back in 1979. I always like to hear about the annual Berkshire meetings which are legendary but this year's one has a different tone altogether. Michael Graham gives us the inside scoop:
My sixteenth pilgrimage to Berkshire Hathaway’s annual Woodstock of Capitalism (refer later) was to bring a reminder of Warren Buffett expressive likening of financial crises to the exposure of those swimmers without bathing suits when the tide goes out.
This ebb tide, it’s not the banks or corporations of 2008 – 09, but sovereign governments that are bringing a type of risk traders and investors haven’t had to worry about since the Asian financial crisis – sovereign default.
It might well also be that the growth of government that began with the Keynesian experiment after World War II is reaching the limits of acceptability. And all the more in Western democracies after the lifesaving, pedal-to-the-metal government stimulus and deficit spending of recent years. (Thank you Tony Plummer and your astute Helmsman Economics commentaries.) Regardless, there must now come unavoidable and extremely unpalatable preventatives – the shrinking of bloated or disproportionately-large bureaucracies, deep cuts to government spending and stringent deficit reduction.
In the EU, it’s no longer Portugal, Iceland and Ireland, but a growing number of others where fiscal discipline and rehabilitation are urgently required. In the UK, a tough-talking new cabinet has led off with a 5% pay cut of its own salaries, along with example-setting limits on ministerial limousines and first-class air travel, and the promise of draconian spending cuts to come. The same in Spain and Portugal which are both urgently addressing unsustainable deficits with big budget cuts. In France, all government spending has been frozen except for pensions and interest payments. And on and on!
Yea for deficit reduction as what could be a recuperative austerity wave begins to roll clean across Europe.At the world level, the IMF is urging governments to cut public debt in order to prevent higher interest rates and slowing economic growth. To these ends it is also advocating stepped-up value-added taxes in countries that already have them, and their imposition in countries that do not. Its message to a debt and deficit-laden U.S. couldn’t be more pointed.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also weighed in with hard-choice, deficit-reduction urgings ahead of the G8 and G20 summits he's host at Deerhurst and in Toronto.
Wouldn’t it be great if the Western world were to at last be getting the message about the risks of spending and borrowing one’s way to disaster!
Of course, words are one thing, implementation and perseverance another. There should be no doubt about the angry resistance to come, or the political (and re-election) temptations of monetizing deficits and repaying debts in still-cheaper (i.e., further-devalued) currencies. They’re continuing fork-of-the-road risks investors cannot afford to ignore.
Also to be kept in mind is how the fork of expediency could lead to the next wave of inflation (even hyperinflation) which might be subdued for now but, considering today’s strangling national and international indebtedness, has to remain the longer-term elephant in the room.
The other fork in the road leads to austerity – spending cutbacks, higher taxes and new frugality. It can only be tough, but is surely the healthier road to take even if it means reduced future investment returns. (In Charlie Munger’s view, refer later, there is no better way of being happy than getting your expectations down.)
The disciplined fork will not halt the shift in global power to Asia led by emerging powerhouses like China and India. Nor will it soften the aftershocks of the EU debt and deficit crisis on global trade, capital flows and economic growth.
However, in what cannot be a zero sum game, if China, India, Asia and the BRIC world continue to do well, we should do well too.Crisis, discipline and opportunity were words featuring prominently at an overflow Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting that was to leave 38,000 attendees, including the Grahams, much encouraged about the worldwide future for investing.
I always come away from these meetings the better for the wisdom, humour and taciturn wit of the ageless Warren Buffett, rising 80, and Charlie Munger, 86.
This time, I may not have learned that much new, but it was refreshing all the same to be reminded of time-proven homilies like investing not requiring brilliance as much as it does discipline and the avoidance of stupid mistakes. (A related example touched upon is fuel from corn which was described as “stunningly stupid”.) And also that investing requires continuing learning because the world keeps changing, and it will be hard to fail (in investing) if “each night you go to bed a little wiser than when you woke up”.
I am also always reminded at these meetings how Warren and Charlie love declining share prices because “we can then buy more”, whereas it “pains” them to buy more when share prices are going up.