Buffett and Munger: S&P 500 vs. Berkshire Hathaway

brk2016letInstead of watching the entire 6-hour Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) annual shareholder’s meeting, I first read through the WSJ highlights and then watched selected parts of the Yahoo Finance replay which interested me.

One interesting topic was about Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger’s directions to their heirs. Buffett has famously directed his wife to put 90% of her assets into a Vanguard S&P 500 index fund and 10% into US Treasuries. In contrast, Munger has told his family “not be so dumb as to sell” their Berkshire stock. Why do they differ?

You can see this question at the 1:39:55 marker in the video. Here are my notes:

  • Buffett initially tries to deflect this question by stating that 100% of his BRK stock will be given to charity. However, there would be nothing stopping her from buying BRK shares (or any other investment) at a later time, so that doesn’t really answer the question.
  • Both Buffett and Munger have previously stated that they believe that Berkshire will likely perform better than the S&P 500 in the future.
  • Buffett’s wife will have more money than she needs. Maximizing upside is not important. Downside protection is most important.
  • In terms of investment performance, both are quite unlikely to suffer permanent loss, but the S&P 500 is still a little bit more reliable than BRK. There is still some chance that there could be a change in culture or executive leadership that might damage the company. Someone might succeed in breaking up Berkshire into parts.
  • The 10% in short-term US Treasuries (essentially cash) goes even further, in case there is long severe depression or even if the stock exchange is closed, there will be cash on hand to handle things.
  • In terms of human issues, it would be a news event if she had BRK shares and sold them. The media would care. Talking heads would offer alternatives. However, if she holds the S&P 500 index fund, that is so boring that it is quite likely nobody will ever bother her again. From all that I have read, never being bothered again sounds like something she would enjoy. (Most people don’t even know her name or what she looks like.)
  • Munger concedes that the S&P 500 as well-constructed as a diversified portfolio of large companies. In terms of performance, it is “all but impossible for most people [to beat].” However, he’s still telling his family to stick with Berkshire.

Buffett and Munger are exceptionally rational as opposed to emotional. Therefore, both answers will most likely work out fine. Sometime in the next 50 years, the stock market will probably drop 50% again. The fact that Buffett thinks the S&P 500 is safer than even Berkshire is something to remember the next time there is a stock market crisis.

At the same time, Munger’s comments should make a current BRK shareholder feel more secure in holding shares for decades to come. Even with Buffett’s shares going to charity, there will still be a large chunk of shareholders with a long-term view.

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