Charles Munger: The Riposte

May 6, 2012 at 22:31


One would think that a man as wealthy, as smart, and as old as Charles Munger would have known better than to suggest that people who buy gold are uncivilized. “Gold is a great thing to sew into your garments if you’re a Jewish family in Vienna in 1939,” Mr. Munger told Rebecca Quick of CNBC, “but I think civilized people don’t buy gold, they invest in productive businesses.” The fact is that people who bought gold a decade ago were far better positioned than those who put their money in Mr. Munger’s company, Berkshire Hathaway. For the value of a share of Berkshire Hathaway has collapsed over the past decade to barely more than 74 ounces of gold from the 238 ounces it was worth a decade ago.

Ms. Quick had beckoned Mr. Munger into this morass by telling him he was one of the greatest investors of all time and asking him whether there is anything happening that seems “like déjà vu.” Mr. Munger replied that the panic that “came as a predecessor of the Great Recession had common themes that are always the same — the crazy greed, the crazy leverage, the crazy delusions, and I think we were very lucky that the outcome wasn’t worse. . . . Of course, we knew it was coming, and we always used to say, well, what do you think about the crazy consumer credit or the crazy this or the crazy that, well, what’s going to happen. I would always say, it’s going to have a very bad result, but I can’t tell you when.”

Where the uncivilized boors who adjusted early to this crazy period gained the judgment to buy gold is a mystery Mr. Munger didn’t pursue, though they better protected their investors than Mr. Munger and his partner, Warren Buffett, did. Mr. Munger dodged Ms. Quick’s query about the current campaign among central bankers in respect of easy money. “They went to the whip,” Mr. Munger mused. “They don’t have an unlimited number of weapons. We’d be in way worse shape if both political parties hadn’t backed huge central bank intervention. The big mistake was made by allowing the boom to go so crazy, so much evil and folly to run so rampant.”

Mr. Munger credits Alan Greenspan for having recognized that he was wrong. “He’s the only one that’s done that,” Mr. Munger said. “Everyone else has managed to look at this enormous [word unclear] and leave the previous ideas intact. . . .” He then began talking about economic virtue and sin. “What happens is that in an economy with a certain among of basic virtue, like a bunch of Germans or Japanese or something, can resort to a lot of extreme Keynesian intervention and help things. But if your whole cultural system disintegrates — say the way it did in Greece where everyone was living with no work and a lot of make believe and fraud and what have you — then the Keynesian stuff won’t work.”

Ms. Quick said she took it that Mr. Munger was “not in Paul Krugman’s camp.” Mr. Munger allowed that Professor Krugman “is one of the smartest and most articulate people we have, and he is very often right.” But not before remarking that Mr. Krugman “doesn’t sufficiently understand the kind of sin that the Democrats like. You know, the crooked plaintiffs lawyers. That stuff affects the body politic, and affects how well the economic principles work.” Then he moved on to talking about how Chairman Greenspan was “”blind not to step on the boom.” The problem, he said, was that Mr. Greenspan “really overdosed on Ayn Rand.”

Hmmm. Was it Ayn Rand on which Mr. Greenspan overdosed? In 1966, the future Fed chairman wrote for her newsletter an essay called “Gold and Economic Freedom.” It begins with the sentence “An almost hysterical antagonism toward the gold standard is one issue which unites statists of all persuasions. They seem to sense — perhaps more clearly and subtly than many consistent defenders of laissez-faire — that gold and economic freedom are inseparable. . .” The essay ends with the assertion that “[i]n the absence of the gold standard, there is no way to protect savings from confiscation through inflation” and that “[t]he financial policy of the welfare state requires that there be no way for the owners of wealth to protect themselves.”

“This is the shabby secret of the welfare statists’ tirades against gold,” Mr. Greenspan warned. “Deficit spending is simply a scheme for the confiscation of wealth. Gold stands in the way of this insidious process. It stands as a protector of property rights. If one grasps this, one has no difficulty in understanding the statists’ antagonism toward the gold standard.” So maybe it was something else on which Mr. Greenspan was over-dosing when he arrived at the Fed. And maybe the reason that Berkshire Hathaway shares have collapsed in value is that neither he nor Mr. Munger were paying attention to the civilizing effect of gold and economic freedom.