Like clockwork, I once again spent a good chunk of this past weekend watching the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. It might sound terribly boring to some, I know. Since my first father-and-son trip to Omaha over twenty years ago, Warren Buffett and his long-time sidekick, Charlie Munger, manage to get my attention during the first week of May. At age 90 and age 97, respectively, I suspect this tradition will only last a few more years.
In a world infatuated with shiny objects, the annual Buffett and Munger show has surprisingly maintained its relevance. We should all be so lucky to have such command of our wits at their age. Remarkably, they manage to match their wits with more than a dollop of wisdom. Right along with their billions, after nearly seven decades of investing, their collective wisdom is still piling up. They’ve seen it all. Well, almost.
Throughout the years, the Berkshire Hathaway meeting has offered an annual check-up on the ever-changing investment environment. Back in 2000, the tech-stock bubble was finally bursting. In 2006, the crazed housing market was starting to roll over. By 2009, the Fed dove headfirst into its zero interest rate policy. Each year’s meeting has offered a chance for Buffett and Munger to share their insights for hours on end.
This year, what caught my ear was their fascination with how our current economic “movie” will play out. While they didn’t share the name of the movie they’re watching, for years now I’ve felt we’re deep in Wonderland, walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Alice herself!
At the center of their curiosity is the conundrum of super-low interest rates. It certainly has been my obsession. Will interest rates stay this low? Have they permanently elevated stock prices? Do bonds still have a rightful place in conservative portfolios? Can we really print trillions without major consequences? Seeking answers to these important questions, and many more, will lead you right down the rabbit hole, of course. As enticing as it is, just throwing up your hands doesn’t really seem like a viable option.
For Buffett and Munger, the current movie inevitably inches closer to their final scene. I imagine their calm sense of wonder at this year’s meeting reflects their own demographic reality (and their unimaginable personal wealth is possibly a contributing factor!) For me, however, today’s environment is just one more fascinating scene in a story that’s still very far from complete. Calm wonder, I’m afraid, feels like a luxury. Embracing a little bit of their attitude, though, might in fact be the only rational way to manage through it.
As I reflect on this year’s meeting, the lesson from Buffett and Munger certainly wasn’t about the nuts-and-bolts of investing. Rather, I think this year’s lasting lesson is to always stay curious. After all, in a world that seems about as mad as the one Alice tumbled into, things are bound to get curiouser and curiouser!