Category: Things I Like
Every year, one of my favorite things to read is the Berkshire Hathaway annual letter. The 2018 version is out and, as always, is a beautiful thing to read if you have any interest in business and economics.
I particularly loved Warren Buffett’s reflections at the end of the letter in a section called The American Tailwind, which follows:
On March 11th, it will be 77 years since I first invested in an American business. The year was 1942, I was 11, and I went all in, investing $114.75 I had begun accumulating at age six. What I bought was three shares of Cities Service preferred stock. I had become a capitalist, and it felt good.
Let’s now travel back through the two 77-year periods that preceded my purchase. That leaves us starting in 1788, a year prior to George Washington’s installation as our first president. Could anyone then have imagined what their new country would accomplish in only three 77-year lifetimes?
During the two 77-year periods prior to 1942, the United States had grown from four million people – about 1⁄2 of 1% of the world’s population – into the most powerful country on earth. In that spring of 1942, though, it faced a crisis: The U.S. and its allies were suffering heavy losses in a war that we had entered only three months earlier. Bad news arrived daily.
Despite the alarming headlines, almost all Americans believed on that March 11th that the war would be won. Nor was their optimism limited to that victory. Leaving aside congenital pessimists, Americans believed that their children and generations beyond would live far better lives than they themselves had led.
The nation’s citizens understood, of course, that the road ahead would not be a smooth ride. It never had been. Early in its history our country was tested by a Civil War that killed 4% of all American males and led President Lincoln to openly ponder whether “a nation so conceived and so dedicated could long endure.” In the 1930s, America suffered through the Great Depression, a punishing period of massive unemployment.
Nevertheless, in 1942, when I made my purchase, the nation expected post-war growth, a belief that proved to be well-founded. In fact, the nation’s achievements can best be described as breathtaking.
Let’s put numbers to that claim: If my $114.75 had been invested in a no-fee S&P 500 index fund, and all dividends had been reinvested, my stake would have grown to be worth (pre-taxes) $606,811 on January 31, 2019 (the latest data available before the printing of this letter). That is a gain of 5,288 for 1. Meanwhile, a $1 million investment by a tax-free institution of that time – say, a pension fund or college endowment – would have grown to about $5.3 billion.
Let me add one additional calculation that I believe will shock you: If that hypothetical institution had paid only 1% of assets annually to various “helpers,” such as investment managers and consultants, its gain would have been cut in half, to $2.65 billion. That’s what happens over 77 years when the 11.8% annual return actually achieved by the S&P 500 is recalculated at a 10.8% rate.
Those who regularly preach doom because of government budget deficits (as I regularly did myself for many years) might note that our country’s national debt has increased roughly 400-fold during the last of my 77-year periods. That’s 40,000%! Suppose you had foreseen this increase and panicked at the prospect of runaway deficits and a worthless currency. To “protect” yourself, you might have eschewed stocks and opted instead to buy 31⁄4 ounces of gold with your $114.75.
And what would that supposed protection have delivered? You would now have an asset worth about $4,200, less than 1% of what would have been realized from a simple unmanaged investment in American business. The magical metal was no match for the American mettle.
Our country’s almost unbelievable prosperity has been gained in a bipartisan manner. Since 1942, we have had seven Republican presidents and seven Democrats. In the years they served, the country contended at various times with a long period of viral inflation, a 21% prime rate, several controversial and costly wars, the resignation of a president, a pervasive collapse in home values, a paralyzing financial panic and a host of other problems. All engendered scary headlines; all are now history.
Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, lies buried within that London church. Near his tomb are posted these words of description (translated from Latin): “If you would seek my monument, look around you.” Those skeptical of America’s economic playbook should heed his message.
In 1788 – to go back to our starting point – there really wasn’t much here except for a small band of ambitious people and an embryonic governing framework aimed at turning their dreams into reality. Today, the Federal Reserve estimates our household wealth at $108 trillion, an amount almost impossible to comprehend.
Remember, earlier in this letter, how I described retained earnings as having been the key to Berkshire’s prosperity? So it has been with America. In the nation’s accounting, the comparable item is labeled “savings.” And save we have. If our forefathers had instead consumed all they produced, there would have been no investment, no productivity gains and no leap in living standards.
It’s 2018. I’m still an incredibly heavy email user. It’s the primary tool in my workflow and has been since the early 1990s. I’ve tried a lot of different things over the years, but always come back to email.
I’ve been a Gmail user for almost a decade. While I’ve tried client-side apps, Gmail in Chrome has been the only thing that has stuck for me. I’ve also tried many of the iOS email apps and always end up back at Gmail for iOS.
An increasing number of people in my world have been using Superhuman so I decided to give it a try. I was skeptical that it would capture my attention beyond a day. Two weeks later it is, in fact, superhuman. I’m using the Chrome app and the iOS app as my primary email clients.
The other tools I have in my email workflow are SaneBox, Todoist, Notebene (which recently replaced Captio), and FullContact. As a result of Superhuman, I eliminated TextExpander from the mix. The one limitation of Superhuman that causes me a little pain is lack of direct integration with FullContact, which would make managing my address book better.
I didn’t realize how sluggish Gmail on Chrome is, even on a 225Mbps connection (which is what my office is clocking in at this morning.) And, at home, where I often see 3Mbps at high peak usage times, it’s a dream. But, that’s a tiny part of the speed. The big change is that I keep my hands on the keyboard 100% of the time. While I’ve been a heavy Gmail keyboard user, it turns out that you need the mouse for a bunch of Gmail things. Superhuman has turned them all into either keyboard commands, a slightly different workflow, or a “snippet” that lets you create your own compound shortcuts.
I never thought I’d recommend a web-based email client that costs $30 / month, but Superhuman is worth every penny of it. I wish I was an investor, but I guess I’ll live with being a Superhuman user.
As the weekend approaches, I sense the need in the universe for some people to find a new TV show to binge watch.
If you fit in this category and haven’t yet watched The Expanse, give it a try. If you are a BSG fan and haven’t seen it yet, start tonight. If you like sci-fi, drama, space opera, global political intrigue, underdogs, detective noir, the risk of mass extinction, and believable human history a few hundred years in the future, this one is for you.
There’s a ton of setup, so you need to hang in there for the first five or so episodes. As the friend who referred me to it stated, it’s “Boring boring PROTOMOLECULE…” You get there quickly enough.
There are three seasons, and Amazon just picked up the fourth, so there is a lot to catch up on along with a future. And, after reflecting on it compared to our current geopolitical situation, it’s easy to assert that “nothing ever changes.”
I regularly get asked where my investing philosophy comes from. There isn’t an easy answer, as it comes from a lot of places, numerous people who influence my thinking (publicly and privately), my partners, and lots of reflection and critical thinking around things that have worked and haven’t worked for me over the past 25 years.
However, one public person who has influenced my thinking for a long time is Warren Buffett. I don’t know Buffett, but I’ve been a fan and follower since college. I read his annual report every year. I’ve also read several biographies on him as well as a bunch of stuff on his long-time partner Charlie Munger (who I’ve learned even more from.)
Last weekend, Amy and I watched the documentary Becoming Warren Buffett. I thought it would be a harder sell to her, but I think we needed a break from binge-watching The Expanse, so she was game to go in an entirely different direction for a few hours. She loved it, which was fun. I liked it a lot also, and, while there wasn’t much new information for me, seeing and hearing Buffett reflect on some things was fascinating.
My behavior is not to emulate Buffett. Nor is it to emulate any of the other inputs I have. All of the inputs influence how I think about things, but I view them as inputs rather than fundamental principles to follow. But Buffett has been – over an extended period – a particularly interesting and stimulating input for me.
As a bonus, his view on philanthropy and generational wealth is very consistent with mine and Amy’s.
If you are a Buffett fan, or just interested, Becoming Warren Buffett is definitely worth watching.
My friend Katherine pointed me to the Number Gossip site. If you like numbers, you’ll quickly lose the next hour playing around. Since 49% of the US is taking today off, it seemed like a relevant thing to spend some time on.
For example, did you know that 67 is the only number such that the common alphabetical value of its Roman representation is equal to its reversal (LXVII – 12+24+22+9+9=76)?
Or, did you know that 111 is the smallest palindromic number such that the sum of its digits is one of its prime factors? It’s also the age at which Bilbo Baggins leaves the Shire.
I had forgotten that evil numbers are a number that has an even number of 1’s in its binary expansion. But, I didn’t know what an odious number is (it has an odd number of 1’s in its binary expansion.) Apparently, being evil is related, but the opposite, of being odious.
While we all know that 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything as calculated by Deep Thought, did you know it is also the number spots on a pair of dice? It’s also the smallest abundant odious number.
Have fun. Don’t forget to come up for air once in a while.
While on vacation last week, I watched his new 30-minute cartoon adventure Principles for Success. It’s spectacular and worth 30 minutes of your life to watch and ponder.
His Episode 4: The Abyss, made me think “just another one of those” (a Dalio construct that I’ve come to love.) My abyss happened between 2001 and 2003 and, while I wasn’t alone in my mistakes as Dalio was in his, I related deeply to it.
I have a Cray-2 showing up at our Carriage House in the next few weeks. It’ll be a permanent fixture there and, while it’s not functional, it’ll be fun to have around.
I’m now on a quest to find a Thinking Machines CM-1 or CM-2. Every supercomputer needs a friend after all.
If you know where I can get one (I’m happy to buy it), or display something publicly that is hidden away in storage somewhere, drop me a line.
In the meantime, if you want to learn more about the CM-1 or CM-2, the following promotional video is a nifty walk through memory (see what I did there?) lane. Yup – enjoy the parallel universe (sorry – I couldn’t help myself.)
They have a new documentary coming out called Adele and Everything After. It is an award-winning documentary about Marty, a woman with an untreatable heart condition that made her pass out every day, and Adele, one of the world’s first cardiac alert service dogs.
Blade Runner 2049 is still in the theaters and has a rotten tomatoes score of 88%. While long, it’s definitely worth seeing on the big screen.
If you have never seen the original, please see it before you go. And, if you haven’t seen the original in the past six months, please-please-please watch it again before you go. There are so many wonderful linkages and homages between the two movies that you’ll miss them if you aren’t fresh on the original.
The original is set in Los Angeles in 2019. That’s less than two years away. It was made in 1982 (about 37 years ago). We still don’t have flying cars or jetpacks. Maybe we’ll have them by 2049. Harrison Ford has aged a little but he’s still an amazing actor. The evil genius inventor is different but is still the evil genius inventor. Replicants are still the future, maybe. The visual beauty of the movie is magnificent. Atari is still around. Dystopia is still dystopic.
All the important questions are asked in the film.
- Who are we?
- Where did we come from?
- Where are we going?
- How much time do we have?
And, most importantly, Blade Runner 2049 brilliantly sets up a sequel!
On our way home, Amy and I had a long debate about whether K dies in the end or is just chilling out in the snow and is finally happy for once.
Oh – and Joi is way more interesting than Samantha (from Her).
This is worth the full ten minutes. Sit back, relax, and be amazed.