Welcome to the Knowledge Project, I'm your host, Shane Parrish. I'm the author of The Phantom Street Blog, a website with over sixty five thousand readers that's dedicated to mastering the best, what other people have already figured out in the Knowledge Project. I interview people from around the world so we can learn from them, expand our minds and challenge and thinking. In this episode, which was recorded live in New York, I have on the show one of my favorite people, Sanjay Bakshi.
Sanjay is one of India's best recognized finance professors. He teaches a course entitled Behavioral Finance and Business Valuation at the Management Development Institute. And while he probably doesn't want me to mention this, not only is he a teacher, but he's also a practitioner. He's one of the most successful investors you'll ever come across. In this interview, we talk about a host of things, including why he prefers to read on a Kindle, how he incorporates multidisciplinary thinking and mental models into both his investment decisions and life decisions, and how his approach to investing has changed over time.
That's it. So without further ado, I hope you enjoyed the conversation with Sanjay. If you enjoy it, please let me know your feedback. I'm at Farnam Street Fair and a street street on Twitter and thank you for listening. But first, here's a word from our sponsor, Greenhaven Road Capital is a small hedge fund inspired by the early Warren Buffett partnerships. We have a fair fee structure and our portfolio manager is the largest investor in the fund.
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I'm here with Sanjay Bakshi, who's been described self-described as an opinionated professor of value investing at the Management Development Institute in India. Welcome.
Thank you, Shane. How are you? I'm very well. Thank you for coming all the way from Canada to meet me here in this lovely hotel in New York. It's such a pleasure to meet you. I've known you for so many years and I'm so glad that I'm meeting you now. It's a pleasure to meet you as well. So Sanjay and I have been emailing back and forth for years now and being here in person and meeting him. It's it's an amazing experience.
He's everything that I thought he would be so happy to meet you.
Yeah, I have to say that I am envious of you for many reasons. One of them, of course, being that you have a library much bigger than mine. And I have a very large anti library, thanks to you, because I end up buying virtually all the books that you recommend and the list keeps on growing. In order to find time, I have to compromise many things, but it's really worth it.
I appreciate that. I, I definitely have.
My bookshelves are starting to overflow, so it's getting to be a bit of a problem.
But, uh, so you have the capacity to get in to kill them.
Well, let's let's actually let's dive into that like talk about the the Kindle versus the the physical book. What is it. What do you prefer. Why, how do you use that?
Well, I used to prefer the written one, of course, because you can underline and you feel you love the smell of the people and you you have a nostalgic associations with, uh, with the physical book where it looks like invigorated, which you kind of lose when you do it on a Kindle. But over time, I realized that these are prejudices that should be let go of because there are other things that are possible with the Kindle, which are not possible with the physical book.
And for me as a professor, it really helps me to be able to know that I have read this somewhere, you know, the kind of associations that occur in memory when you are experiencing something, you know that you have read about this particular aspect in some book, but you don't know which one. And if it was all physical book, you would go crazy looking for that book. But if you just do a search for a term across all your books and you get a library, it comes up in a flash.
And the interesting thing is that you sometimes discover things that you didn't know existed. The serendipitous, um, discovery of wonderful words, of wisdom about a certain topic in your library are amazing. And then that happens. I have my Eureka moment. And the other reason why I love Kindle is because you can underline stuff and write your own notes and they get sent to the cloud. And once they're in the cloud, you can copy paste, you can use it for your lectures.
And it's very helpful. So very grateful to Amazon. And of course, it's environmentally friendly.
You don't have to waste paper, do you read exclusively on the Kindle now?
Oh, yes, I like to, but only for books. Of course, there are annual reports and there's always the annual reports of businesses that I like to, uh, study and that you don't get on Kindle. I don't like reading on computer monitors. It's very strenuous to the Kindle, therefore, is much better because it doesn't have any eyestrain. Then, of course, there are letters written by other investors which are not available on Kindle usually.
So I look at it on Kindle. Any book that is available on some books are not that you have to buy the physical ones and you're a prolific reader.
So do you know about five percent of what you are?
Do you notice a difference in what you retain when you're reading on the Kindle or I guess in your your not your physical, your takeaways from the book, but in terms of how your brain is storing or organizing? I mean, there's been a lot of studies that say that reading on a screen and reading a physical book impacts your memory and how you make connections, your associations.
Sure, that's true. But I think there's a tradeoff here. You might retain more when you read a physical book and you might do it in a bit less. But that kind of gets offset by the fact that you are creating a document on the cloud, which contains the best things that you read in a book, the ones which influenced you the most because you have underlined them sometimes the underlined portions of a book spend many pages and all of that gets interesting to the cloud.
And when you work on that particular passage, again, in the context of something that you are trying to evaluate, then all of that comes back. So in a sense, I think there is a tradeoff here. While reading on a book you get to underline physically and you may have a moment of reflection and you write things on the side, you can do that in a Kindle as well.
So net, net, I think I don't feel the loss of memory if I am using a physical.
So what's your process for reading? So you you purchase a Kindle book, you get it to your Kindle, take me through how you how you read in terms of are you reading one book at a time or are you reading multiple, do you put it aside at the end and then go back to it or do you immediately take your notes out?
Well, I don't like to read one book. I mean, I maybe read about three or four books at any given point of time and I finished them. Then I'll pick up another two or three books to read. One reason is you get kind of bored by reading the same thing or same subject. And, you know, based on what Charlie said, that you should have multidisciplinary mindset. So it's good to have different books from different disciplines and read them.
And then one of the amazing things that I discovered is that you kind of associate one foot with the other ones. And that really is helpful to me so far as not taking is concerned. I underline stuff on the fly as I read it, and once the book is over, I go back on the cloud and take out whatever I've underlined in that particular book, whatever notes I have, whatever annotations that are there, and I would put them in a different document.
And then I let that be because I already started on the on line text the second time. So I've done, in a sense, a second reading of the things that I like the most in that particular book. And I let that be kind of reside in my memory for some time. And then when I'm experiencing the world out there and there is a moment when I would remember that there is this is something which relates to something that I read somewhere, then I can always go back to the document and be able to pull out whatever is useful.
So you have a different document for each book?
Not always, but I have a master document because once you have it on the cloud, you can always copy and pasted any any annotations, any underlying text for that particular book in a different document. I do that for some books too.
Not all of them. That's awesome. That's a really good way to do it. To use Evernote or anything.
Or is it all I do. I do. I use Evernote. That's been helpful to me. I use, um, the other tools like the brain, which is a wonderful piece of software available. What is that. So it's it's kind of replicates what the human brain does. It helps you create thoughts and it helps you connect different kinds of thoughts. And you can put your emails in it and you can put your sound files in it and you can put any kind of document in it.
And then you can look at any particular topic from the perspective of a thought. So you have all these thoughts which are connected, and that's exactly how the human brain works and new associations are created.
So when you're looking at that brain on screen or you see and your actual brain is thinking about those associations, new associations get created. So in a sense, it's an external brain which is working for you. And the size of that thing keeps on going and it's virtually infinite. You know, it can keep on writing stuff in it. So how do you go about teaching that to your students, about multidisciplinary thinking and connecting and associating and synthesizing and distilling?
And is that.
Well, Charlie's already taught us how to do that. We just follow what he says. You know, we try to look at a problem from multiple perspective, and that's, I think, the correct way of doing it. When you are trying to evaluate something, you're trying to ask the question why? Why did this happen? And when you reflect upon it, you find that the answer sometimes comes from multiple disciplines and you get down to that and try to figure it out.
It is very enjoyable to do it in that way. The process for me has always been to ask the question why? And it because the mind will tend to jump to a certain answer, and that's not the only answer. So the way I think about it is whenever there is a complex question, which I'm trying to answer, I always start with the words. Part of the reason is this, and which means that there must be other parts too.
And I like to think about what those parts could be. And they don't have to be 20 of them. Even if they are three or four of them, that's better than one. So it helps me ask the question why and then look for answers.
That's an awesome. Do you think that's like a mental trick as well, where when you respond saying that's part of the answer, you remain uncommitted in a sense to a firm and definite answer, and then therefore you're more willing to be open minded at the end?
Absolutely. Absolutely. And the way to do that is to always answer a question right by the phrase part of the reason, because that removes the availability heuristic, the first conclusion bias, because there are in a world which is full of complexity, there are multiple. Launchers, there are second order effects and third order effects, and you can think of those, I think, especially well, if you start your answers with the phrase part of the reason some multidisciplinary thinking is incredibly popular in the value investing kind of community in the sense that people look up to Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett and yourself and they try to bring that approach on their problems.
Do you know anybody outside of value investing who's taking that sort of approach and how they're applying it to broader policies or anything? Or is it just do you think that it resonates with people in this particular context?
Or I think it's wrong to assume that the idea of multidisciplinary thinking that Charlie Munger talks about should be applied only to investing. In fact, you should use investing merely as an excuse to be able to illustrate the idea that you can use multidisciplinary thinking in pretty much everything that you do. And I think that's a very useful skill to acquire. And Charlie offers you a way to do that. And of course, the way he has done that is to be invest successfully.
But if you read through his letters and his talks, he is very really actually only talking about things which have to do with investing. There are other applications. And if you look around the world, the really good thinkers, they do think in terms of multidisciplinary applications, I do think that there is there are there are a lot of Charlie Munger fans out there, even though they don't know of Charlie. And I think there is an important role that people like you are playing in bringing that kind of knowledge to the world out there.
It's not just about investing. You have to be able to apply in in in other disciplines as well. So not only are you a professor, you're a prolific, world renowned investor. You started in ninety six, did you? I think investing is ninety four. Ninety four. Did you originally take the multidisciplinary approach.
No, not at all. I had no idea about all that. All of that. Not until 2004. So I um I was a one trick pony at that time. I was only I was an accountant. I knew how, how financial statements get created from from transactions and all of that. But I had no idea what a good business and what is a bad business and what is a mediocre business and why. And I was studying at the London School of Economics in nineteen when I chanced upon an article on an obscure guy, operates out of Omaha, has a wonderful track record, says the markets are quite inefficient, which is quite the opposite of what I was being taught at the LHC.
So I found that very interesting. And in that particular article also said that he writes wonderful letters. Then you can you can get them for free if you write to him. So I wrote to Mr Buffett and within four days I got the, uh, I got those annual reports. Debbie, his secretary sent wrote a letter to me that you have to send the postage money, which was probably the best investment.
I mean, so I, uh, I got those annual reports and letters of Berkshire Hathaway as I read to them, I discovered him and I picked up on Graham because I was an accountant, as I mentioned earlier. And I could relate to what Graham was saying up until I knew that there is how financial statements get prepared, what is book value and what is profit and what are margins. And I knew all of those things, but I no idea whether this is cheap or expensive.
And Graham provides a very good framework for people who are good in accounting to be able to figure out fairly quickly whether this is cheap or expensive. So I found it very interesting and I started practicing Graham style investing from then onwards. It's only much, much later that I chanced upon the idea that there could be different kinds of businesses and some businesses could be remarkably having remarkably good quality. And one should ask, why do they have this good quality?
And then, of course, once you start talking about that, you end up discovering Charlie Munger and once you pick up Charlie Munger, you ultimately discover the power of multidisciplinary thinking. So all of that happened. It took me about ten years to get there. So I started practicing value investing in eighty four. But I when I discovered Charlie's talk on multidisciplinary thinking only in 2004, and that was a very significant event in my life because as it happens, that was the year when my family was coming to the United States for a holiday and I came across the stock and my course was to commence in September and this was in June or July.
And I told my family, I'm not coming with you, please leave. And they were supportive and they left me alone. And that's how I decided to change my course and turn it into what is now called behavioral finance and business valuation.
So that particular idea of the psychology, human judgment and the mental model talks, they helped me a lot.
Was it as simple as. Coming across that talk and being inoculated and changed forever, or was there something else going on?
Absolutely there's nothing else going on. I was alone. I think it was it was stupendous to be able to read it over and over again, make notes, try to relate to the power of the ideas that he has laid out in those couple of talks were so powerful for me. And I had the conviction to teach it and I learned to teaching. And it's been very helpful for my students and for me and my journey as a value. This is not complete unless I bring up my discussion on mental models.
So what was the course before you were you were teaching your grammar style investing? It was called security analysis. And I would mostly talk about risk arbitrage, about bankruptcy investing, about investing in cash bargains and statistical screens that Graham used to create and talk about in his books. It was purely that the idea that there could be a great business out there and the idea there could be a competitive advantage or there was not even known to me at that time.
And most of the discussion was revolving around financial statement analysis instead of going to the reason as to why is this business successful? And when you go into the question why, the answers come from many sources, why why does a customer buy this product? What is it that the customer likes? Why does he not buy somebody else's product? Why would a competitor not enter this market? Why? Why? Why would they? Why wouldn't even try to the very profound questions and you will know the answers to those questions unless you ask them.
And the answer comes from different disciplines.
So the role of mental models and multidisciplinary thinking is played an incredible role through investing for you and change the way that you teach. Has it changed the way you live outside of those means? How so?
It has in many ways. And when you look at the world out there, you can't think about it without thinking about incentives. And that's one of the most important lessons of the Charlie has given that you must have a two tier system in trying to understand the world out there. And, you know, we talk about economics and economics is incomplete without psychology. And we have all these notions of what the rational man models and economics, the most of economics is based on the idea that human beings are rational.
But most of social psychology actually tells you that we are quite dumb. Very often we make very foolish mistakes. And I think both the disciplines of economics and psychology are kind of connected. And if you if you put that into context, let me give an example. As an accountant, I learned about the idea of Shadowrun point that there is a point in a business's life and you should shut it down. But if you study Charlie and if you study Warren Buffett Life, you'll find out that actually shut it down well before when it makes sense for you to shut it down, because you have to think about opportunity costs and a lot of people will not shut down, even if it makes sense to shut down because they figured that the other guy is going to blink first.
So they operate in a competitive market. And you're seeing that right now in many industries. Look at what is happening to shale or oil production in even in Canada or in the US compared to what is happening in the Middle East. People will keep on producing things, even though it doesn't make sense for them to produce it, because they think that somebody else will shut down before they work. And sometimes they are right and often they are wrong. And when they write, often they write because they have a backing of some somebody who is going to fund them.
And in today's world, you have these markets which will find you. And we're seeing that in India we have an e-commerce bubble going on.
There are three or four players and they are essentially giving huge discounts to consumers to to purchase their products and to not go to bricks and mortar stores. And people are doing that. But all of these e-commerce companies, they are bleeding cash, but they have rich investors who are willing to give them money to to gain market share. And as long as that money keeps on coming, it's going to be very difficult for the bricks and mortar players to be able to effectively compete.
So we see a kind of a situation where if you want to understand the situation, you can understand without thinking about psychology, what gets a business to continue to operate, even though it doesn't make economic sense. Why does that happen? That helps. And do you think, like you mentioned, the shutdown point, do you think that that transfers to relationships and friendships and books and a whole bunch of other things and the concept of there's a point at which you should stop reading.
There's a point at which a relationship becomes unhealthy. There's a point at which do you think about it in those ways or do you approach outside relationships differently or do you always have that kind of multidisciplinary mental model filter on? I think there's something to be learned on that from the experience of Charlie and Warren. Oh, I think we all know this, that they really sell out of a business, even though it's not doing well, even though economically it should be close.
But why don't why don't they shut it down? Why don't they get out of a business? Usually they don't. And I think the reason is that they've created a culture when they want to be a natural partner for a for a business to be owned by Berkshire. And you don't get to that kind of state if you start treating businesses as a game of rummy or you don't discard your performing businesses. And I think they've done that and and they've done and done that over decades.
And I've created a position in the minds of the owners of admirable businesses out there that hate the place where I can give my business to somebody. And that's not going to be sold off to a private equity investor or to be liquidated because it doesn't make sense, even though in the short term it might cost Berkshire some money. In the long run, it has created a huge reputational advantage for them. And of course, that has helped Berkshire. I think there is something to be learned from that.
But, you know, when you're running a fund, when you have investors who can pull the money out at a short notice, you probably cannot think on those lines. And which is something which Buffett and Charlie are familiar with and they don't have their structural disadvantages. So you have to be very careful about these notions because you have to have the structural advantages that some people have to be able to have the privilege of thinking along those lines. How conscious are you about setting up your your environment to allow for that in the sense of if the journey is a journey?
And there were times in my in my life and I did not have the privilege as a as a evolve over the years. I am I think I'm closer to that utopian kind of a situation where I can say that I can truly think long term. I'm not fully there yet, but I think it's important to to think really long term. And you can't do that unless you are financially independent. As one of the big lessons that I have for my students is that the first thing that they need to get is financial independence.
Once they have that, then they can look at the world the way it really is and they can perhaps think much longer term. But things could be a lot better.
I have to admit, outside of the structural reasons is how do you set up your actual physical environment to encourage rationality or better decisions or so? I mean, Buffett is the one who moved from New York to Omaha, in part because he felt like somebody was always whispering in his ear. And the assumption or reading between the lines there is that I think they are more conscious about how they set up not only their structure of the company when him and Munger owned almost 40 percent of Berkshire, but also their physical environment to maximize their personal ability to make rational decisions.
And I'm wondering what yours looks like.
Yes, I think that's absolutely the right way of thinking about it. And I, I completely agree with you that you have to have a physical environment. One way I've done that is to to give up on television so I don't have a television. The other thing which I did recently was shut out or take away Yahoo! Finance as a bookmark on my on my on my browser. So I don't get to see stock prices as often as I used to.
And it does look it does look a bit odd in the beginning. But if you do this long enough, I am not at peace. Uh, apparently there is a lot of volatility in the markets as we speak right now, but I have no idea as to what has happened to a specific business because I looked at the stock price. I think that's very helpful to me.
Um, Guy Speer has written in the marvelous passage in his book where he wrote about creating a physical space where you have shut out a lot of the distractions of life. So he writes in his book that there is a room where he has no electronics and he cannot be disturbed when he's in that room. And I think that's a very useful way of doing things. And I'm not there yet. But that's one of my aspirations, to have a room where there is no electronics and no distraction and there's a big do not disturb sign outside and where you can just sit and think which exactly what I think Buffett does or does and what I think most successful investors do.
And it's not just about investing, it's about everything in life. You know, if you want to make decisions, you need to shut out a lot of the noise. You have to really focus on things that really matter and sometimes the things that really matter far fewer than what it appears. How do you go about determining what matters and what doesn't?
I mean, we live in a world where everybody, including Farnam Street, I mean, it competes for eyeballs in the. COMPETES for attention, and those are scarce resources on behalf of people, and it seems like the pace or the velocity of that information coming at you is increasing. People feel overwhelmed. They feel like they can't separate the signal from the noise. Is there anything that you do that helps you eliminate, reduce, filter, sift? Yes.
So depends on what context we're speaking about. Let me pick up the context of analyzing businesses. You have all this data. I mean, there is real time information out there. The Bloomberg and I don't have Bloomberg and this CNBC and I don't have a television. So there are all these sources of so-called information. Most of it is, in my view, noise. So if you share all of it, you have a filter or a lot of noise.
But there's more. As you go through analyzing a business, you come across data, for example, quarterly results. You start thinking about these candy. If you think about these Candy See's Candy loses money as as if I recall correctly, about eight, eight months in a year. It loses money in four months. In a year, it makes money. And it's a fabulous business. We all know that. So here is a business which is a fabulous business, which has created a wonderful cash flow, which has helped Berkshire become what it is today when it loses money eight months in a year, which means there are several quarters and it is loss making and it is what is one quarter when they make a lot of money.
I think that's a very powerful way of thinking that there are these businesses out there which are not going to do well.
And therefore, if you put a lot of emphasis on short term quarterly results, you are really looking at noise and therefore you should focus on what really matters. And if you focus on the idea of competitive advantage, the idea of what Buffett likes to call as a model out there, then it's by definition a moat is not going to get eroded in a day. It's not going to get eroded in a quarter. So, in effect, if you are focused on investing in a business which you think has a durable competitive advantage, then quarterly results are going to be almost insignificant.
What really matters over there is the durability of that advantage over a long period of time and how the business can scale, I think, to the two or three things you have to focus on. And when you do that, a lot of things which are irrelevant, which are available to you, you don't have to focus on them at all. You can remove them from the from the from your screen.
There's different types of modes. I think you teach that there's I forget how many that you distinguish between low cost and differentiation. And do you find that any are more sustainable in general if all things are considered like which would be the best mode to have if you could have won one, would it be a product differentiator? Would it be a low cost provider?
Would it be it would be a low cost provider? If you think about it, the reason why brands are successful is because they give you scale and they give you a cost advantage. Um, I think the low cost model is a far more sustainable model, is actually a very admirable model in capitalism, because there's less wastage. If you if you look at a Costco, which we both know is a very admirable business model, then why is it an admirable business model?
Because it deals with the paradox of choice. You don't need 50 ketchups. Why do you need 50 different kinds of ketchups? It's not good for civilization. If you think from a Charles Mingus perspective, to have consumers get 50 different kinds of ketchup, three or four are good enough. And when you have only three or four in a business which is kill, then you can offer them at a lower price because you are buying them in large quantities, much larger than other vendors who have 50 ketchups.
So I think that's very admirable for massive civilisation's point of view. But if you could have something that will will be good for civilization, which means enough choice, but not not so much, that creates a paradox of choice. At the same time, you can own a higher return on capital and also pay your employees well, which is what Costco does. I think that's an extremely admirable combination of things that are happening over there. And when you combine that with the fact that customers are finding a lot of that business because they pay upfront a fee to get the privilege of shopping with you, and that gives you float, which I think is another aspect of of a wonderful business.
I think all of that combined together to produce something which I think is absolutely fabulous. So in a sense, when you have scale, you have a low cost advantage. You pass on most of the benefits to your customers. That creates loyalty. They want to come back to you again and again, and they don't mind being your annual fee to get a chance to shop with you and with the cash flow that you generate, you have a system where you are keeping your employees very happy.
You pay them more than your competitors, pay their employees. And that creates a wonderful culture of. Meritocracy, it's a nice karmic feeling about it that you're doing good, you're doing something prosocial for civilization, and in the process you're not compromising on on creating wealth for you or for your owners. I think even if you make slightly less money, uh, net, net, I think civilization is better off having businesses that have low cost advantage. No, we are not very far from Fifth Avenue, which is a place where you go to buy all those wonderful, overpriced brands.
But if you think about it really speaking, the consumers who buy those five thousand dollar bags are really paying a price, which is way more than the cost of manufacturing that bag. So you have huge gross margins in those businesses and they use that extra gross margin to advertise, to create the perception that you really do need that bag, because if you don't have that bag, then your life is not full. It's not complete. You're not you're incomplete without that bag.
I don't think of that as a very admirable business model. I'm not being very judgmental here. I'm just saying things from my own perspective, that if you had a business where you have a low cost advantage or you're selling something that is really good and cheap and it is a good brand and it is creating a brand loyalty, and you're selling it at a price, which is a really low price. And in the process you can still on a high return on capital.
I think of that is far more admirable business model than where you are selling at ridiculous prices because you're creating a perception in the mind of the consumer that this is worth a lot more than what really.
Do you think that that's a short term strategy, doing that and then because long term, that's not a win win relationship in the sense that, as you said, that it struck me that if you're creating unhappiness in my life because I don't own your products and I buy your product and I'm still unhappy and you're still creating that unhappiness, how can that take advantage of compounding on a long time scale, whereas Costco, for instance, much better kind of model in terms of consumer wins, the employee wins the shareholders when it seems pretty win win for everybody involved the suppliers, when I don't know if I get the same feeling as you were talking about, like the high end brands on Fifth or somewhere else.
You're right. But I don't think we can say this is short term or long term, because clearly many of those brands have been around for a long time and they're very successful businesses is just that if you notice that you don't usually find a box, have to be them away. You know, why don't they want any of that? Why do they have something which gives genuine happiness? Why do they want business if it provide something which is genuinely useful to society?
I think there is something to be thought about on that. But I don't think there's a saying that the sucker born every minute and there are all these people who believe that if they have become wealthy, then they need to have certain products, even though it is indistinguishable from something else, which is far cheaper, and the supply of those people is actually going to increase over time. So I don't think we can say that those businesses are not going to thrive in the long run.
They probably will. But to me that doesn't matter because I am much more in all of businesses which which do something crucial for society and and also make money for the stockholders. So there is no trade off there. I mean, you're not really doing charity. You're doing something good and still make money. I think that's far better than a business where you're making a fool of somebody and a business model which essentially involves making a fool of somebody, in this case your customer.
I don't think it's as admirable as a business model where everybody goes home happy.
As you were talking about Costco, it sounded a lot like Amazon up until you got to your company culture. But the other thing that I think that Costco does, which is which plays to psychology a little bit, is when I go in there and buy my catch up, I have no idea what eight litres of ketchup should cost because I have no reference point. Whereas when you're you have a reference point, it's called trust. It's a business. It's a business model, which is Charlie Gibson saying a seamless web of dissolved trust, which I completely understand.
Like, I know if I go to Wal-Mart and I go to a grocery store, they're selling the exact same model of ketchup. So I have a general sense of how much that should cost when you get into Costco. And I've looked at the financial statements, I know they're not making a ton on this stuff. They make enough to pay their employees basically, and then they try to make their money, if I understand correctly, through the memberships.
Well, Costco, I think, makes about 20 percent return on equity, which is actually quite healthy. If you look at interest rates of this part of the world and it has a margin of less than two percent. So it has very high capital tons. And it can do that only because it has skill and it can get skill only because it has fewer excuse. So I think it's. Nice, virtuous circle, it's a nice positive feedback loop and play out of that.
And do you think that that's more resistant to some of the types of e commerce stuff that you were talking about before in terms of not only the physical kind of bricks and mortar stores, but against the online sort of efficiencies that Amazon? I mean, it seems like they're not really impacting Costco as much as other other stores like Wal-Mart. Yes, that's true.
You know, in a sense, Amazon is picked up some of the best ideas of Costco if you look at Amazon Prime. That takes money from customers upfront to give you certain privileges. That's an idea that they I think they copied from Costco. But it has certain other advantages. It offers you an amazing amount of availability, which Costco doesn't. So it kind of gives you and it is one shop. It doesn't have a lot of the costs which, uh, which which Costco has.
So clearly, I think there is in capitalism, you'll keep on finding all kinds of businesses that are evolving over time. And I think the Amazon business model is very misunderstood, particularly people who think that they don't make any money. I don't think that I think Amazon makes money. You can't just go buy a reported earnings. The true economic earnings of Amazon are significantly higher than reported earnings. I think it's a superior business model over time, but that doesn't have to mean the Costco is going to go out of business.
So let's switch gears just a little bit here. From investing specific to you, acquiring, organizing and synthesizing kind of knowledge as a prolific reader. Read a lot. You integrate that into the word document afterwards. Do you also integrate it into your courses? And how do you go about connecting the different ideas other than you mentioned the Kindle search earlier? But how do you go about adding or refining, I guess, the mental models that you have in your head and adding new mental models?
And how do you know you've come across a new model?
Well, over a period of time when you experience something and you find answers to that question that keep on occurring or in a manner which provides you with answers which are different from what you thought earlier, then you might have chanced upon a new model. Or you never know for sure, of course. And it just a way of organizing your thoughts. So you're trying to evaluate a situation. And maybe five years ago you were looked at differently. Today, you look at it differently because you read so many things and you have a better understanding of the world.
And maybe some answer to that question will help you figure out the problem better than five years earlier, then I think there's a good reason to give a name to that. And that's how I go about doing that. And Charlie has provided you with a framework. And there are all these disciplines and there are all these names he uses, things like the Boiling Frog Syndrome, which is a model which deals with the low contrast effect, which talks about the idea that slow changes tend to go unnoticed.
And that's a very powerful notion, if you think about it, because if you look at a business, hugely value creating business or value destroying business, and if you look at the financial statements or the quarterly period, you will miss a lot of the change. But if you put gaps in between, if you look at data five years ago and today, you will see huge change. And that tells you why you notice change, because you remove a lot of the columns.
You removed a lot of the quarterly information Charlie likes to give a name to to model like this, a boiling frog syndrome thing. We already know that there is this myth that if you put a frog in, boiling hot water will jump out and escape. But if you put a frog in lukewarm water and boil it slowly, it'll stay there.
And it's absolutely a myth. But I think the human equivalent of boiling frog is there and all of us and therefore, if you can notice, change over a period of time by removing periods where change was not likely to be noticed, it's going to be very, very helpful. So I use that a lot. So in a sense, I like to look at a business 20 years ago, 15 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago, and today that helps me understand what comparative advantage could be and how it is increasing or reducing over time.
So it's useful to have these models give them names which are very useful for recall because you can give a technical name to Boiling Frog. But I think it's very important to have these notions in your head because you can retrieve them very quickly. Once you have names which are due to specific models, which which you can recall immediately, it'll be very helpful. So I like that particular point that Charlie makes that you can give them your name and he uses things like depression, super reaction.
He doesn't use the word loss evolution because loss aversion is a technical word, technical phrase to illustrate a very powerful point that he makes the super reaction. I think when you read through his letters and dot, whenever he's talked about the presence of a reaction, it immediately hits you. And of course, Charlie has filed a. And his head, by giving these descriptive names and I find it very useful, so the names are great and for Charlie and for you, you can probably just mentally go through this this list.
How do you feel about checklists or how do you make sure that you've thought about things from it? Seems like ever since Towanda book The Checklist Manifesto, there's been a movement not only in the value investing community, but a movement in hospitals and a movement to go back to. Maybe the airlines are doing something right. Maybe the low paid holidays and the very methodical approach to things has an advantage. How do you make sure that you're capturing all the mental models that you have and bringing them to bear on a particular problem?
So when you think about checklists, I think what you're trying to do is to reduce your rate of error and do the tradeoff here. I think what Atul Gawande has done, he's done a marvelous service to civilization before giving us a framework of how to reduce errors. And it could be domain. It has to be domain specific. It could be, you know, flying a plane, as he talks about in Chapter one in that book, it could be about running a hospital operation.
It could also be about running an investment operation. But all of that is focusing on how to reduce error. But that's just one aspect of it, because reducing errors is not always the most optimal thing to do. You also have to be creative. If you're going to be creative, you want to make mistakes. If you look at any business which has been innovative, you will find that they have made mistakes. So there are two things here.
You need to have the a framework to create insights, which means you need to have a creative mindset, which means that you should be willing to experiment and sometimes make mistakes. At the same time, when you're actually making big decisions, you need to also have a framework to reduce error. And I think Atul Gawande is work and the movement that he's created that you're referring to is very well with that aspect. It doesn't deal at all with the idea that you want to be creative.
So you need both. You need to have the ability to have unique insights and you also need to have the ability to reduce your error rate. So there's a tension between those two. But when you go inside an organization and your, say, a mid-level manager, your job is almost effectively reducing air, reducing variance through which, you know, is at odds with creativity and possible. Because I think there was an article in The Atlantic that put it really well about creativity.
And I'm kind of going off the cuff here. But they basically said that creativity is connecting things that other people haven't connected before. And if it works, you're a genius. And if it doesn't, you're basically in the madhouse because people think you're crazy. So when you're trying to get promoted and the psychology of being that mid-level manager in an organization is very career oriented and has a lot at stake and reducing the variability. How do you go about implementing creativity?
How do you like how do you balance that tension? And some companies do it really well. And I have no idea how they how they do that. So that's a great question.
And I thought about that over the years and all the years I've come across a few entrepreneurs which have, I think been what I would describe as what Charlie would call as a learning machine. They made mistakes, they learned, and they haven't made those mistakes again. And, you know, as a as a financial analyst, I do know a few things about risk management. So what I the way I think about it is that I'm looking for businesses that that are risk averse, but not of words.
And those two things are very different. So what are you really looking for is somebody who doesn't mind making a few small bets. Many of them will go bad, but they have potential. And if they if they pay off, they'll pay big. And if none of them pay off, it won't impair the company. It won't impair the business.
And that's exactly how Buffett thinks. So when he is in a position to write an esoteric insurance policy, which will maybe pay off if he has to, to make good on his promise, he may have to pay a couple of billion dollars or even more than that. But the premium that he receives in return of that promise is several times more than the actuarial value of that bet. And the reason why he can do that is because nobody else is willing to make that bet.
And the reason why nobody else is willing to make that bet is because of the point that you just made, that they have the people who have to make that bet have career issues. They have career risk associated. So they are they are they are loss of words and they are risk averse. They don't want to take a chance. But Buffett doesn't mind doing that.
I think that's very interesting because you can use that in analyzing a whole variety of businesses out there and find entrepreneurs, which in aggregate are not taking a significant risk, because if all of these bets don't work out, you're still fine. And the way to think about that is to look at the quality of the balance sheet. If, for example, you're not borrowing money to expand and if you're doing multiple expansion projects, you're introducing different products in different markets, in different geographies.
And you know that each and every one of those. We have great potential, but it's a probabilistic world out there. You have no idea whether they will work or not. So you're giving a lot of respect to uncertainty. You don't know what you're just being driven by. Data is exactly what happens in Amazon.com. You're trying to do a lot of experiments. You don't know which ones will pay off. But if even if none of them pay off, it won't ruin the company because it has got other earnings streams.
It has zero debt on the balance sheet. I think that layer of financial discipline, when you combine that with an innovative culture, is a very good mix. And I think you find that in some entrepreneurs. And when you find them, you should you should look at it with a bit of admiration.
That's a really great to think about. As you were talking your answer, and I was trying to think of the differences between Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs. And one would be if you had to categorize him purely analytic and the other would be driven by an intuitive sense of design. And yet they're both incredibly or were incredibly successful. Yes, I think often I'm wondering if we just straddle we try to be a little bit of both and that that strategy is effectively ineffective because instead of trying to compete or better yourself in one area, you're trying to better yourself in two areas by which, you know, you can't be an expert at both in that sense, or maybe you can be.
And we just haven't come across examples of people that I can come up top of my head. But how do we how do we move forward with that tension in terms of is it better to pick one? I know myself and you know, you can't really make these decisions until you know yourself. And therefore, I will be data driven person and I will make these decisions or I know myself and I have a more intuitive sense of design, and that's the path I want to pursue and then burn your bridges to the other one or to you.
Do you still like how would you approach that?
I would do that from a different perspective. There are these intuitive people out there in capitalism. You have found a Steve Jobs who can create something beautiful that people relate to and they don't become price insensitive. They just want what he is offering to the world out there. And it is beautiful. But you can't spot these people at the beginning of their careers. You can spot them maybe in the middle of their careers. So it has to be past track record of somebody who's intuitive and right over and over again.
Once you found out that's based on actual data. And on the other hand, you have these other kinds of entrepreneurs who are like Jeff Bezos, who are data driven, who don't mind, who had no idea about what will happen, but who don't mind making a series of small bets on a number of our hundreds of experiments and have the ability to be absolutely unbiased about where to put money. And they would bet heavily when they know that this bet is likely to pay off.
And then if bets that are not being off, they wouldn't hesitate to withdraw capital from those. I think there is in capitalism as investors for for us, it's we shouldn't have at least I don't feel the need to have a preference of one or the other. If you can find both kinds of entrepreneurs, it's wonderful because you are trying to build a portfolio.
That's a really good way to think of that. So there's three questions I do at the end of every interview. And so we're coming to the end. So I want to ask you these three and the first one is what book has influenced you the most in your life
that's easy. Its poor charlie's almanack by charlie munger . It never stops influencing me every time I pick it up. If I read it, it gives me something more to think about.
How often do you reread it or go back and think about it?
Or I did about three times in a year. But some talks I end up reading more every year. I go and teach a course on behavioral finance and on the talk on psychology. Human judgment is is helpful because every time I read that talk, I come up with new examples. I've learned something else over the last one year and every time I read that book, that particular speech that he gave, it helped me come up with new associations, new examples.
And I think I'm a better thinker after having read what what Charlie had said so many years ago and related to my new experiences and be able to teach them and in the process, learn more through teaching so that so some talks I would read more and some I would read less, but I would pretty much read that book about three times in a year.
So with the talk, the psychology of human misjudgment, do you listen to it or do you read the. I read it. I know there there is an audio version of the first talk, but I prefer to read it because there is it's so profound. I mean, you have to pause. If you if you are listening to it on audio, then I guess you need to constantly pause and think about it. Maybe you can do it. But I just don't find that very easy to do.
So I'd rather read it and then let it be. Read the passage and then think about it. We've spent a few hours thinking about it. And is your copy of poor Charlie's Almanac marked up or. Oh, yes. Yes. Oh, yes, we'll book. Are you reading right now that you're really enjoying?
Well, to pick up, I'm reading so many of them. Let me open up. I picked up one book that you had recommended a few weeks ago, which I find very useful. We just put that up. "Perils of Perception" that's a book that you wrote about in one of your books, and I picked it up. And I believe that it's a fabulous book. I've just read about 30 percent of it. I think it's a fabulous book.
It's amazing. But I think my what I said was it deserves a place on everybody's shelf besides seeking wisdom. Great. And he's an amazing person. And then the final question is who if you could have anybody else interviewed on the knowledge project, who would it be? Who would you like to see me interview? Charlie Munger. I'll try to make that happen. Sanjay, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. It's been an amazing experience meeting you and speaking with you.
Thank you, Shane. It was pleasure meeting you as well. Thank you.
Uh. Hey, guys, this is Shane again, just a few more things before we wrap up. You can find show notes at Farnam Street blog, dotcom slash podcast. That's fair. And S-T, our blog, dotcom slash podcast. You can also find information there on how to get a transcript.
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