Warren Buffett’s Right-Hand Man Charlie Munger Dies at 99


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Charlie Munger, the outspoken business partner and sounding board of Berkshire Hathaway

CEO Warren Buffett for more than 50 years, died at age 99 in Los Angeles, about a month before he would have turned 100 on Jan. 1, 2024.

Munger died peacefully Tuesday morning at a California hospital, according to a statement from Berkshire.

“Berkshire Hathaway could not have been built to its present status without Charlie’s inspiration, wisdom and participation,” Buffett said.

The decline in Munger’s health may have come suddenly because plans were being made to celebrate his 100th birthday at a black-tie New Year’s Eve party in Los Angeles. Munger was hoping to match Henry Kissinger, who turned 100 earlier this year.

As Berkshire’s vice chairman, Munger offered advice to Buffett on a range of matters including investments, acquisitions, and corporate management.

“This was a business marriage. Buffett and Munger were business partners in the closest possible way,” says Bill Smead, manager of the Smead Value fund. “In Buffett you had an incredibly wise man who likes to be liked, and Munger was a super wise man who didn’t care. That was a great combination,” he added, iikening Munger to current-day King Solomon.

“Munger was a huge positive in our lives,” Smead says. “He was always willing to tell it like it was rather than sugar-coat it. He’d give you wisdom and didn’t worry about what people thought about him.”

Like Buffett, he took a salary of just $100,000 annually for more than 25 years and believed that the rich should exercise self-restraint in their lifestyles. Also like Buffett, he lived in the same house for over 60 years. Munger was wealthy thanks to his Berkshire stake, which was worth more than $2 billion.

“Charlie has the best 30-second mind in the world,” Buffett once said. “He goes from A to Z in one move. He sees the essence of everything before you even finish the sentence.”

Buffett noted that Munger helped him see the value during the late 20th century in growth companies like Coca-Cola, a shift from his previous focus on cheap, undervalued companies—which Buffett’s mentor, noted value investor Benjamin Graham, called “cigar butts.”

Buffett also credited Munger with one of Berkshire’s best investments of the past 20 years, BYD, a Chinese car and battery maker. Berkshire’s investment was worth $6 billion in early 2021, 25 times its cost. Berkshire has subsequently sharply cut its stake in the company.

Munger drew some criticism for his benign view of China. At the 2023 annual meeting in May, Munger urged cooperation between the two countries.

Munger said, “Tension has been wrongly created on both sides. I think we’re equally guilty of being stupid. If there’s one thing we should do, let’s get along with China, and we should have a lot of free trade with China in our mutual interest. It’s just so obvious.”

Like Buffett, Munger ran an investment partnership that racked up outsize returns earlier in his career. Munger’s partnership, which predated the start of his involvement with Berkshire in 1978, generated a 13.7% annualized return from 1962 to 1975, against a 5% yearly return for the Dow Jones Industrial Average

Munger sometimes referred to what he called the Lollapalooza effect, which refers to a combination of forces or trends that results in a more magnified result than each individually.

The success of Berkshire’s Geico auto-insurance unit showed the Lollapalooza effect as the combination of a low-cost model operating model, a trend to direct sales of insurance policies to consumers, and strong management allowed Geico to quadruple its market share from 1996 to 2021.

Munger may have been best known for his tart comments over the years on multiple topics including Bitcoin, whose growth he deemed “disgusting,” in part by its use by kidnappers and ransomware practitioners.

He was no fan of the Robinhood online brokerage platform, which he called “beneath contempt” in May 2021. The reason: “It’s a gambling parlor masquerading as a respectable business.” Robinhood disputed that contention.

Munger was enormously popular with many Berkshire shareholders, who relished his appearance at the company’s annual meeting, where he and Buffett would hold forth for hours about Berkshire, investments, economics, politics, and life lessons in Omaha’s largest arena before a crowd that numbered more than 30,000.

Longtime Berkshire investors liked Munger’s moral compass, his willingness to speak his mind, his ability to turn a phrase, and his great rapport with Buffett. All this was a welcome contrast to so many tight-lipped, afraid-to-offend corporate executives.

Munger missed the 2020 virtual annual meeting because of the pandemic, and Buffett was so eager to include him in 2021 that he flew to Los Angeles to hold the meeting there virtually with Munger rather than in Omaha, where Berkshire has its headquarters. Munger attended the 2022 and 2023 annual meetings.

While Munger and Buffett both grew up in Omaha, they didn’t meet until 1959 and became friends almost immediately.

“I just knew instantly Charlie was the kind of guy that I was going to like, and I was going to learn from,” Buffett said in a CNBC interview in June 2021. “But, you know, it wasn’t anything calculated, a decision or anything like that. It was natural. And we have had nothing but fun.”

“We have never had an argument, 62 years. And it’s not that we agree on everything. We literally, in 62 years, we’ve never gotten mad at each other,” Buffett said at the 2021 annual meeting.

Buffett helped convince Munger not to practice law full time, although Munger was a longtime partner at the firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles. He was a longtime director of Costco Wholesale and chairman of the Daily Journal, a newspaper and investment company. Munger fans enjoyed his appearance at the Daily Journal’s annual meetings.

In response to a question at the 2021 annual meeting about Berkshire’s underperformance relative to the S&P 500 over the past 10 years, Munger said: “I’d bet on Berkshire over the market.” He did note that investing was getting more difficult. “We’re used to shooting fish in a barrel, but it’s getting harder.” Berkshire has outperformed the S&P 500 since that meeting and now is ahead of the market over the past 10 years.

Munger observed that he and Buffett did things differently than the typical corporate executives.

“We both insist on a lot of time being available almost everyday to just sit and think.” he said. “That is very uncommon in American business. We read and think.”

Munger and Buffett were proud of Berkshire’s distinctive, decentralized corporate structure and loathed bureaucracy and consultants.

In introducing Munger at the 2021 meeting, Buffett said, “And I would say he’s probably the vice chairman in charge of culture, among other things. But if I ever want to get questions about where true north is, I talk to Charlie, and he has been an enormous help.”

Munger discussed the Berkshire way at the meeting.

“We’re different from practically every other big corporation in the United States in that we are so excessively decentralized.” he said. “We have decentralized so much and we have so much authority in the subsidiaries that we can keep doing it for a long, long time as long as it keeps working. And I would say so far that our decentralization has caused more benefits than defects, but nobody seems to copy us.”

Berkshire’s board let Buffett determine the pay of his top managers, vice-chairmen Greg Abel and Ajit Jain, pretty much as he saw fit. Both have earned $19 million in the past few years. The lack of any formal pay guidelines drew some criticism from proxy monitors.

Munger hated the use of compensation consultants who help draw up often incomprehensible executive pay schemes used at most big companies. He said he’d “rather throw a viper down my shirt front than hire a compensation consultant.” Buffett has added that if the Berkshire board hires one after he’s dead, he would “come back, mad.”

It was at the 2021 annual meeting that Munger let slip that “Greg will keep the culture.” That reference to Abel was the first public signal that Abel was the likely successor to Buffett as CEO—something Berkshire quickly confirmed