Monday, January 18, 2010

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett: Keeping America Great

I recently DVR'd the CNBC show Bill Gates and Warren Buffett: Keeping America Great. The show has the two titans of capitalism sitting down with a crowd of Columbia students for a back and forth discussion on 'keeping America great.' It was a great glimpse into a casual discussion between these two business geniuses and a group of driven young business students parched for knowledge. The show exposed me a bit more to Bill Gates, especially in a relaxed setting. And it reaffirmed my admiration for the simplistic character based wisdom of Warren Buffett. I love the reality driven optimism of both of these guys and seeing as they are at the world's forefront in both business and philanthropy there is definitely much to be learned as a business leader and more importantly as a human being living a life of excellence. There were plenty of great questions and great responses from these two icons. I have provided some paraphrased enlightenment from the show but I highly suggest you tune in and watch the entire thing. It is well worth your time.

Was there ever a doubt about this country?
Buffett: I put my money in when we were looking into the abyss.
Gates: This country still has the best schools the best opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Do you think bad ethical business practices are the cause of the financial crisis?
Buffett: It was one of the causes but we have always had greed and we will never get rid of it. We still have a system in place that allows for a quality of opportunity that is unparalleled. Our economy is sputtering but we still have the best engine in the world.
Gates: I was a huge beneficiary of this country's willingness to place a large amount of risk and responsibility on a young person. Other countries are trying to replicate that and it is good for the world.

Mr. Gates can you tell me what you thought when Lehman went under?
Gates: I don't really follow investment banks very closely. I called Warren and asked if I should be worried? He said a little bit.
Buffett:The dominoes were fully lined up and it wasn't realized how close the Lehman domino was to the next one. However I give credit to how the government officials handled the crisis overall.

Many of the villains of this industry were in fact business school graduates. What responsibility do you think the universities like Columbia should hold?
Gates: Remember that capitalism has been enormously successful. Standard of life, medicine, etc. Business schools pay a role in developing the skills necessary to move forward.
Buffett: The best place to learn ethics is in the home. Most of us learn what we know about ethics well before we step in a classroom. It is important to emphasize them but if I had to choose between learning them in the home or the classroom I would take the home. The thing is you can succeed marvelously with ethics. It is not a hindrance at all. Look everyone here has a bright future. Look at the last two centuries. Our country doesn't avoid problems it just solves them.

What industry do you think is going to produce the next Bill Gates because that is the industry I want to get into?
Gates: Information has been the most exciting as far as what has happened. Energy and medicine also has the opportunity to rival information.
Buffett: Find what turns you on and what you have a passion for. If I would have known that Bill's industry was the next big thing I don't think I would have done too well at it. I had a teacher Benjamin Graham that I offered to work for free for and he said I was overpriced but I went that direction and had a passion for it and here I am. You will do well in whatever turns you on.

CNBC took a poll of the attendees and asked if in their lifetime they would ever see a company as transformative as Microsoft and 92% said yes. Bill do you share that belief?
Gates: Yes. Capitalism is great. You have thousands of things going on in parallel and most fail, some are mediocre, but the ones that are truly special can grow and stun everybody.

There have been a of rumors regarding your investment in Burlington Northern. Can you share the real reasons for your exposure to the railroad sector at this time?
Buffett: When I was six I wanted a railroad set and my dad didn't get it for me. Railroads are a necessity within this country. You will have more people and they will be moving more and more within this country in the next 30 years. It is the most environmentally and most cost effective way of doing that. One train will supplant 200 trucks on the road. They will play a big role in the future.

We just went through hopefully the worst financial crises of our lifetime. It has kept a lot of people up at night worrying about their future. What if anything keeps you up at night?
Buffett: I try to live my life so that nothing keeps me up at night. Last fall was really quite exciting for me. There were opportunities available that weren't the year prior. This country was going to do fine no matter what.
Gates: The financial system fortunately has a lot of self correction in it. I think there are a few things that could shake us in the future. One being a large scale terrorist attack and the other a widespread pandemic. You have to keep your eye out for a few outliers like that. I worry about our education not improving as much as it should.

The recent run up in the market has been historic with many people questioning the sustainability. Do you think the rally is for real?
Buffett: What's going to happen tomorrow huh? I bought my first stock in 1942.. Do you know when the best calendar year was since then? It was 1954 of the heels of a recession. But the point is it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what the market does next week. What matters is whether you are buying a good stock for the money or not. Have the right long term outlook and the right evaluation of the company you are buying and a bad market is your friend. I don't care whether next week, next month or even next year does well.

What are your thoughts on Apple and the job Steve Jobs has done as the CEO of Apple? (Awkward laugh from audience and an almost pissed off smirk from Gates)
Gates: He has done a fantastic job. They are in a bit of different business but he has done well. He brought in a team and inspired them to revive a company. It is great to have competitors and of all the leaders in the industry he has proven most inspirational and he saved a company to bring them back at an incredible rate.

What is the one thing your MBA didn't prepare you for when you got into the real world?
Buffett: It prepared me very well. I was lucky that I knew what I wanted to do. I had two professors that really inspired me so that really propelled me into a field that I already loved. Right now I would pay $100,000 for 10% of the future earnings of any of you so if anyone wants to see me after. If that is true you are a million dollar asset right now. You can improve upon that by working on your communication skills. If you can improve it by 50% its another $500,000 in terms of capital value and see me after class here and i will pay you $150,000.

Mr. Gates you obviously worked very hard to get where you are. Can you share what role pure luck played in your success?
Gates: I was lucky in many ways. Lucky to be born with certain skills lucky to have parents that created an environment that was good for me and I was lucky in terms of timing. The microprocessor invention impacted me incredibly at a young age. Lucky to meet the people I have met.

You have an interesting relationship. What do you both admire most about each other?
Buffett: He admires my athletic ability. What I most admire about Bill is the view he has of what to do with the money he has amassed. As he said he was born in the right country, at the right time, with the right wiring and he was very lucky to be where he is. But in the end he knows he is the beneficiary of a tremendous society and not everyone has that opportunity. He values every human life as much as the next and he is backing it up not only with money but with his time and his wife is backing it up as well. They are going to spend the second half of their lives improving the lives of the 6 and a half billion people of the world and that is what I admire most about him.
Gates: Well with Warren there is a lot you can pick. His integrity is an example to the world, his humor. But I think I would have to pick his ability to teach. He has the ability to take things that are very complex and make them so simple so that everyone has the benefit of the experiences and work that he has put in. He loves to teach and its a real gift that I admire incredibly.

R. Glenn Hubbard the Dean of Columbia business school had the opportunity to present the question that he was most excited to ask. Warren you have said that you never know who is swimming naked until the tide goes out. That says something for knowing when the tide is going to go out but it also says something about knowing context. How do we develop and encourage business leaders who understand context and can connect the dots?
Buffett: I think they have learned alot of that in the last year and some just never learn. I think that what I learned from Ben Graham is that having sounds principles takes you through everything. They take you through the good and the bad and in the end I don't worry about it.

Has your investment philosophy on buy and hold or any of the actual processes of how you invest been impacted by the recent crisis?
Buffett: No it hasn't. We like products like this (holds up coke bottle) how is that for shameless promotion? This started in 1886 and gone through all these events and in the end there are billions of servings of coke next year and more the year after that. I own fruit of the loom too but I am not going to do a product promotion of that!

How would you recommend that an individual investor who follows the Graham and Dodd philosophy allocate their capital today?
Buffett: Well it depends on whether they are active or a passive investor. If you are going to spend a lot of time on investing then look at as many things as possible and you will find some bargains. You have to look for yourself. The world isn't going to tell you about great deals you need to find them yourself and that takes a fair amount of time. If you are not going to do that then I just advise an index fund invested consistently over time. Cash is the worst investment. Cash is not king. Find a good business and stick with it. We always keep enough cash around so I feel comfortable and can sleep at night but it is not because I like cash as an investment. Cash is a bad investment over time but you always want to have enough so that nobody can determine your future.

I actually work at Goldman Sachs so thank you for your investment.
Buffett: Well why aren't you at work?
I would like both your opinions on the development of alternative energy for getting our economy back on track?
Gates: There will be many that are dead ends. But as a nation we want to make sure that we have an environment that encourages all of them because one will eventually lead to much cheaper and better energy. There is quite a bit of R&D but not as much as I would like to see. But it is one of these areas that is emphatic by nature. There is a lot of money going in and the return on investment as a whole is actually quite low much like cars and computers etc. You get these kind of bubbles so you will have to be a bit careful to make sure that it is one that has its cost structure in line and not just pushed along by subsidies. So its a good area but not necessarily one that is great for investment.

If America was a stock would you buy it?
Gates: You bet
Buffett: On Margin!

No comments: