Here you can enjoy the second part of our interview series with Guy Spier of Aquamarine Capital.
We have discussed the following topics:
[00:00:00] Tilman Versch: In this interview, you can get to know why Guy Spier did not invest in Apple, what he would do with 1 billion he gets to invest in China, and where Warren Buffett does not invest to not get to know what he’s capable of doing. If you enjoy this video, please leave a like and subscribe to this channel. Thank you.
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Why did you not invest in Apple?
[00:01:00] Tilman Versch: Guy, it’s nice to have you back to the second part of our interview. I already teased that we might discuss a topic where you draw a line where you said no to a certain investment. You already explained some criteria that you want to be a Swiss-oriented investor and there’s one question coming from the audience that I found very interesting. And it’s also leaning into, like, the influence Buffett has in your portfolio because some of the ideas you took from him, or you used from him and what idea you didn’t use, and mandy mulch also didn’t use was Apple. And at the time, the investment was announced publicly so you could have gone into the rabbit hole of Apple and followed it, and why didn’t you decide to invest in Apple as well at the time or what held you back there?
[00:01:55] Guy Spier: Yeah, it’s not a source of as much pain as it would have been a few years ago, but to take you to the history of my knowledge about Apple. Somebody that I met at the Berkshire meeting who’s an incredibly private guy, but I think that he won’t mind if I bring up his name, he’s a man called Steve Waldman. Steve lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and in summertime, I believe that Madison, Wisconsin, has a lake. He has a summer home on the lake and he is, well, as you can imagine, way more introverted than most of the people I know, and I think I know quite a few introverts. And extraordinarily thoughtful, and really has learned Warren Buffett’s lessons in a way that is really special, Tilman, because it’s relatively easy to find me and put me in front of the camera. If you put Steve Waldman in front of a camera, I’ll buy you a bottle of wine or something. But Steve is one of the most thoughtful investors I know.
So I’m with him at the Berkshire meeting and he talks about Apple and we’re talking about Apple, this must be about 2004 or ’05. And he says, “Look, I’ve had this simple insight that Microsoft is all about text and words and doesn’t handle images and video very well. And what I see with Apple is they’ve really oriented their whole computing towards doing images and videos.” And he said, “It’s so obvious.” And he any pointed out some things at the time so obvious that that is where the world is going. And the whole Apple’s ecosystem is far better set up to take advantage of that. Computing is going to be visual. It’s not going to be about Blackberry keyboards. And that made so much sense to me. And I did nothing about it, and I think that probably because he was the kind of guy who made big bets. Small but big bets or small number of big bets. I suspect he had at least 10 or more percent of his portfolio, which was substantial I think, at that point in Apple.
And I think that like Nick Sleep with Amazon, you only really need one. And you end up… Nick, you could say, had Amazon and Costco and probably a few others that we don’t know about. But when you have one investment like that, that from, I don’t know what the multiple is from 2005, ‘06 in Apple, but it’s probably at least 50 or 100x. And so that was something, and he’s a buy and hold investor, he would not have sold any of his Apple. And so that is something that I missed well before Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway invested in Apple. And I kind of like, part of my dismissal of the idea was, “Oh, that’s nice, Steve, you understand these tech businesses and the thing for me is that today, it’s Windows and tomorrow, it’s some other operating system. Who knows? And I don’t want to bet on devices. I don’t want to bet on software.”
And I couldn’t see through that period how the Apple ecosystem was coming together in ways that kind of locked it in place in a very, very profound way if you think of all the different aspects of Apple’s businesses and the way that if you’re on the Apple platform, everything just becomes a little bit easier. And I remember going through the learning curve of discovering how simply being able to have your app on the Apple screen and then to have your app integrate just a little bit better with the Apple OS. So then, when Berkshire Hathaway revealed its position… So now, I’ve done nothing with this incredible insight and it’s playing out but I’m still stuck in this mindset of, “Yeah, but I don’t do tech,” or something like that. And then Berkshire Hathaway goes and buys Apple. That was a difficult meeting for me because I had to acknowledge that a whole bunch of things that I was holding in my mind is a kind of dogma. Had to be discarded and Charlie Munger talks about discarding your best-loved ideas. And so, this was a case of me having to discard some of my best-loved ideas.
And I think that it’s an enormous mistake of omission, and it’s a mistake of omission that was sitting right there in front of me. And I didn’t do it when Steve Waldman talked about it and I didn’t do it when Warren Buffett talked about it. I think, to some degree, I kind of said, “I have a significant position in Berkshire and I said, well, Warren’s doing that for me, which is a legitimate thing to do.” But yeah, it’s a huge mistake of omission. Actually, Mohnish’s eyes practically popped out of his head when I told him, I think I’m going to be talking about one of your Turkish companies as a mistake of omission. Because if we talk about my desire not to invest in Turkey, that what I’m being paid to do, what I need to do professionally is to evaluate things dispassionately and rationally.
And I think that on the one hand, you have these personal experiences around Turkey and certain views about where Turkey is. Then on the other side, you have the fact that I have a front-row seat into a specific selection of a specific company with a specific set of people, and there’s nothing in the rule book that says I don’t put one or two percent of my portfolio into it. And if I had put one or two percent, I think that company for … has 20x. So one or two percent could have turned into 20%, all other things being equal. So it’s a missed opportunity, a significantly missed opportunity. I don’t think I feel either about Apple or about this Turkish company. I don’t think I feel that terrible about it because that’s the nature of the world. We have to live in such a way that these opportunities are going to pass us by and it’s okay because we’ve done enough other things right, if you like.
I had to acknowledge that a whole bunch of things that I was holding in my mind is a kind of dogma. Charlie Munger talks about discarding your best-loved ideas. And so, this was a case of me having to discard some of my best-loved ideas.
[00:08:37] Tilman Versch: Mistakes are always, or often, a chance to grow and to change things. What have you changed based on the mistake with Apple?
[00:08:47] Guy Spier: So I think that I can’t start talking about my passwords to the general planet, but I think that when I do passwords, so they’ve become far longer. For example, on the last passwords we used, you need to have a very long password so you could use a phrase and I will use phrases as a kind of self-hypnosis. So, use a phrase that is going to help me go in the right direction, and about 2020, 2021, I think I was forced to change my password. And I changed my password into something that would orient me towards thinking differently about these new economy companies. And rather than discarding them out of hand, and rather discarding an Apple or Microsoft, to recognize that this a very important part of our industrial economy that needs to be analysed. And that’s a very, very minor change but from minor changes, you can get big changes. It’s not like I jumped all over tech, but I think that I would be more open to investing in tech now. I probably still need to learn more lessons from that, you know.
I changed my password into something that would orient me towards thinking differently about these new economy companies.
[00:10:10] Tilman Versch: Maybe change your password again after the interview.
[00:10:12] Guy Spier: Well, I didn’t talk about what the exact phrase was. Yeah, maybe I will change the password.
[00:10:19] Tilman Versch: What is your password towards China? I have a question that’s a bit challenging. I would say I bring you $1 million. You have to ask me this money in China, what would you do with that? But maybe you can also say more about the password framework.
[00:10:38] Guy Spier: You mean…
[00:10:40] Tilman Versch: If I were to come today and do the experiment with you, you have $1 million. You can invest it for me in China. What would you do?
[00:10:48] Guy Spier: So you know, I don’t speak Mandarin and at this point in my life, I think is unlikely that I will ever have a good grasp of Mandarin and I haven’t grown up in China. But I think that there are things that I can do in countries that are not my home country that can make sense. We can start with, which is not a strategy I particularly like, is what Warren Buffett did in Korea in which he invested in a basket of net-nets. Famous case of him putting a hundred million dollars into a basket of net-nets in Korea, so you can diversify in that way. I think that the investments that I’ve made successfully in countries that are not my home country, and for me, I consider home country as western Europe and North America, and a few other mainly Anglo-Saxon economies, like Australia, New Zealand, which I think of operate in a very, very similar way.
So when Berkshire Hathaway made the investment in PetroChina, I think there’s an analysis that that company is embedded in so many different institutions with so many eyes and interests there that you can make predictions about how it will evolve. And concerns about corporate governance, and concerns about expropriation, or concerns about other kind of random things happening in that country can be attenuated. And I think that for the majority of them, the successful investments I’ve made in non-home markets have had that kind of analysis that one can do around them.
And one of the first ones for me was Crisil, where there was a 40% shareholding from Standard & Poor’s and there was a 40% shareholding from ICICI Bank. And was I worried about minority expropriation? Yes, I was but it wasn’t one big institution versus minority. It was two big institutions that were going to watch each other. So that’s the of analysis that I’d be seeking to make in China. And I think that there are a number of businesses in China where one can relatively easily say, as one used to say about General Motors in the United States, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the United States. What’s good for the United States is good for General Motors.” You can say that same thing about those companies in China. What’s good for the for China is good for Alibaba and what’s good for Alibaba is good for China.
And I would go even further to say, in the case of Alibaba, what is good for the world is good for Alibaba and what’s good for Alibaba is good for the world. And so I would look for those kinds of businesses where I, sitting from my perspective in Zurich, can make those kinds of inferences without having to get on the ground and get into detail that I will never really be able to evaluate properly.
I think there’s an analysis that that company is embedded in so many different institutions with so many eyes and interests there that you can make predictions about how it will evolve.
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[00:14:32] Tilman Versch: You have this Jewish background and, in our pre-talk, we talked about that your family had real estate in Berlin and you got it back after the fall of the wall of Berlin. And you already went through with your family with the experience of probably taking away, having to flee and stuff, like this was really bad. How is this fear affecting your thoughts on China? Because there’s always this thinking that in the end what are you investing in China is for the Communist Party, the Chinese people, and it’s maybe not for the outside investors.
[00:15:09] Guy Spier: Yeah. And before we get there, that story with my family’s relationship to Germany’s really special, I think, and I have gotten into huge trouble with my Israeli relatives by saying that I’m a proud German. And, you know, there are people who have problems with Wagner being played in Israel because they feel like Wagner was a big supporter of national socialism. And I will take any opportunity to say that I am proud of, I think historically, when we look back at the post-war period, Germany will be held as an example of how a country can deal with its history. And I’m not saying that Germany was perfect. I think that when I look at the history of the Munich games and the hostages that were taken, there are some very difficult questions to be answered about exactly what happened there.
But overall, when all you have to do is go to Berlin and see that vast area of real estate that is given over to memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe to say, “Wow, this is a country that is…” And the key is that right now, Russia is going to have to do, at some point in its history, a similar job on itself for what is happening now in Ukraine. And perhaps the actions of the Red Army after WWII that many historians say wasn’t properly dealt with. This capacity of a country to carefully look over its history, we’re being challenged to do that in the West over slavery. And there’s a very high standard that is set by Germany. I would also say that it’s an unfortunate fact of history that people do get expropriated, people do have to move for all sorts of reasons.
And by the way, if you go back to previous generations of my family on my mother’s side, they were economic migrants. They weren’t expropriated en-masse as an ethnic group, but they moved for economic opportunity and because there was nothing for them in the country that they left. So, you know, after a generation or two, you have to get over it. And I think that what’s really important, and I really do believe this and just to go to something a discussion that we were having in the office the other day, and to bring it back a little bit to investing. So what happened in Germany could have happened in any country, I strongly believe that. All these people who say, “Well, there’s something unique in the German mindset or spirit,” I disagree with that. Any humans are capable of extraordinary cruelty and destruction. It’s nothing to do with whether you speak the German language or the English language or any other language under the sun. If you look at what happened in Algeria under the French, you can see terrible things. And so we always have to kind of arm ourselves as humans against our capacity for terrible evil.
And sitting in the famous charity lunch with Warren Buffett, I will never forget these words. We were talking about debt and he said, “I don’t want to get into a lot of debt ever because I don’t want to discover what I’m capable of.” I don’t remember whether I said it, but in remembering it, what I would have wanted to have said is, “Are you serious? Are you telling me that, you, one of the most respected business people not just on the planet, but who has ever lived, you’re saying that you’re worried about what you’re capable of, you know?” But that is a signal lesson.
When we look at Sam Bankman-Fried or there are comparisons being made between him and Bernie Madoff, the correct thing to do is not to say, “Those evil people, I could never have done that.” The correct thing to say is, “That is what a human is capable of, and I, sharing the same humanity as that person, am capable of that myself. How do I make sure that I never do that? That that never happens to me.” You don’t want to say, “Those evil people, look what they did.” Say, “I’m capable of the same evil. How do I make sure that never happens to me or around me?” So that’s a long story and that’s the right approach to the history of Germany in World War Two. How do we as civilized people arm ourselves? How do we make sure that that doesn’t happen in our societies ever again? And it’s happening right now in Ukraine and it doesn’t seem like there’s much we can do. So humanity has a long way to go.
Any humans are capable of extraordinary cruelty and destruction. It’s nothing to do with whether you speak the German language or the English language or any other language under the sun.
That was all fun and interesting. When it comes to China, I think that the one kind of, like, exogenous variable, you know, the economists say, “Assume…” And those assumptions are often heroic assumptions, we will call them. And they’re all the jokes about how do you change a light bulb? And the psychotherapist patients like, you know, can change the light bulb but the light bulb’s got to want to change is one of the jokes. And you know the economist’s answer is assume a light bulb or assume at all. And so the big heroic assumption, that is just a black box for me that I think will turn out correct but we will never know, is everything assuming provided that the Communist Party of China behaves rationally.
And the rational interest of the Communist Party of China is to stay in power. The way they’ve stayed in power and the way they succeed and stay in power is by delivering for the people of China. It’s in a very different way to a liberal democracy but they have delivered and it’s a fact that’s been stated many times. Never in the history of the planet have so many people been lifted out of poverty and the fact of the matter is, that is to the credit of the Communist Party of China. For one reason or another, for reasons that I don’t fully understand, they’re getting things right. They have gotten things right historically. The record shows millions of people travel out of China and voluntarily come back to China. So it’s not so unfree that people don’t want to be in China. They have delivered on prosperity for the Chinese people.
And that was hard for me to understand because my educational background was that the world tends towards liberal democracy. And at the end of the day, liberal democracy is the right way to do things and liberal democracy works for Europeans and North Americans, but it also works for the Koreans, also works for the Japanese. So this is a model that is transplantable across cultures but now we have a different model that, on key measures, has delivered for the population. And it seems that it has the capacity to self-correct. So what is scary about authoritarian governments and regimes is that perhaps they cannot self-correct and so as long as they’re aiming towards a goal that everybody agrees and understands, they get there very fast and very effectively.
But what happens when you need to make new decisions and take a new direction? Example would be the China under the end of the Ming, I believe it is, dynasty when into a period of decline where the system could not rejuvenate itself. And a key strength of democracies is they seem to be able to very inefficient in their decision-making but we seem to be able to rejuvenate ourselves, to reboot, after we’ve made some bad decisions. I’m still waiting for the United Kingdom to reboot after having taken a terrible decision on Brexit.
But an interesting point on China is that having realized that they had made an enormous mistake in their very, very severe lockdowns over Covid, that did self-correct. And there was an argument that I heard recently that Xi Jinping wanted his third term, he didn’t want to do anything that would get in the way of his third term. But now he’s understood rationally that getting people prosperity is actually very important for his third term and he can now stand back and allow that to happen. So he’s relaxed the Covid restrictions, the huge scrutiny of some of these large tech firms has been relaxed as well, and so I think that there is at least an indication that the Chinese Communist Party will continue to make rational decisions. Very long answer to a very good question. I hope that I didn’t lose anybody along the way.
What is scary about authoritarian governments and regimes is that perhaps they cannot self-correct and so as long as they’re aiming towards a goal that everybody agrees and understands, they get there very fast and very effectively. And a key strength of democracies is they seem to be able to very inefficient in their decision-making but we seem to be able to rejuvenate ourselves, to reboot, after we’ve made some bad decisions.
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The evil side within humans
[00:24:03] Tilman Versch: It was a really long answer but it was going to detail. I think there’s also nugget in the quote of Buffett. It’s very interesting.
[00:24:15] Guy Spier: It is very interesting and really, really important. And if you allow me to dive in on that, it may be the most interesting thing. Worthwhile takeaway from this is don’t live your life assuming that you’re not capable of great evil. You are, we all are and we should live our lives understanding that part of us that is capable of great evil and then harness that for good and protect ourselves against that. And I have that conversation internally. I’ve said, you know, if you think that we’re just not capable of doing what Bernie Madoff did or what SPF may or may not have done, we don’t know. Think again, you know, I strongly believe that I’m not capable of it, but I don’t want to live my life that way. I want to live my life as if it might be possible and take all the measures necessary.
And it starts at the most basic thing. You know, it didn’t actually save Bill Gates, but I used to say about Bill Gates, if you name your foundation ‘The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,’ in a certain way, what you’re saying to some aggressive female who might want to win your love is you’re never going to get the Foundation. The Foundation is with me with me and Melinda. So you can place things into your life which make it impossible. You know, if I say to Chantal, whom you met, “Hey, you know, if ever I start trying to cheat on my wife, I’d like you and I say it in front of everyone, to please put a call in to my wife right away.” In a certain way, I’m making it okay to do that.
It’s something that I do here is that I tell people, “If any regulatory agency from Switzerland, the United States, developed country calls up, you do not have to speak to a lawyer, you don’t have to speak to me, just answer the questions honestly.” That’s kind of saying we want to run this place where at any minute… Because I do think that we need to put all the protections we can against bad behaviour. And one of the best protections is to not assume that we’re not capable of that, as Warren Buffett doesn’t assume that he’s not capable of it. So making the point again.
Don’t live your life assuming that you’re not capable of great evil. You are, we all are and we should live our lives understanding that part of us that is capable of great evil and then harness that for good and protect ourselves against that.
[00:26:37] Tilman Versch: It can also be a certain level of, if you’re not conscious about it, that you have the potential to be like this. It can’t be also resource that you can manage it. Maybe at some point of time, you have to be in some situation where others are cruel to you, you could use this as a resource.
[00:26:55] Guy Spier: Yes. And so the person that I have not paid close enough attention to, who talks about this is, Jordan Peterson. And he talks about recognising the evil inside you or recognising the capacity to do harm and to harness that. And so, he’s somebody who understands a lot better than I do. I think that what’s really hard is that this is just like an explosion of content on YouTube. And a lot of it is really, really good, but there’s a limit to how much we can listen to. So I’m not sure where to go. I mean, Jordan Peterson’s books are great but he’s got a lot more content on the Internet that’s in his book.
So I would actually say that Jordan Peterson is a really, really special human who… I think that I don’t want to give him the status of a biblical prophet. But he’s a kind of a seer in that way. In each generation, we have people who connected to something that’s very, very profound about humanity and I think that he’s, for one reason or another, connected to that. And we’d all do well to pay attention to him. And I don’t think we have to try. I think that because of the nature of his message, he will find his way into our minds one way or another. And that what really impresses me about Jordan Peterson, but it’s also true of other people, I think Prince Harry. Although I’ve not read his book, I’ve watched a couple of interviews, but also somebody that I got to know who’s just a British. She’s a British journalist and she writes reviews for The Sunday Times, Christina Patterson.
There’s a sort of a class of humans… Mohnish is this as well. They have a fearless dedication to the truth, a fearless dedication to finding out what is actually true, and then speaking that truth without a fear of what will happen to them, to the relationship or anything else. And those people are to be treasured by our civilization because many of us; and I hate to put myself into the category, but I know that it’s been true of me in the past, maybe it will be less only future, is that we do what is expedient. So you know, it starts with flattery, or telling white lies, or presenting something that is not entirely the case because it’s just easier, and that is a divergence from the truth.
But it is this searingly honest to the very last bit of truth that I think pulls individuals into incredible adventures and pulls civilization into a far better place. Jordan Peterson is doing that. I think Mohnish Pabrai does that. Sam Harris has a very short monograph, I think he calls it online, where he basically came to the conclusion that even telling white lies is not an ideal thing to do. Ideally, you don’t do it. But it’s very easy to fall into it because it’s expedient. Last point on Jordan Peterson. I don’t know where we started here but it’s like a motto to have on one’s computer or to have up there. ‘Do what is meaningful, not what is expedient,’ is a beautiful guide for life. And when once faced with a difficult choice, you know we can ask ourselves the question, “What is meaningful to do in this situation? What is expedient? Am I moving towards what is expedient or am I moving to what is meaningful?”
It starts with flattery, or telling white lies, or presenting something that is not entirely the case because it’s just easier, and that is a divergence from the truth. But it is this searingly honest to the very last bit of truth that I think pulls individuals into incredible adventures and pulls civilization into a far better place.
At the moment, what do you love as a Value Investor?
[00:30:34] Tilman Versch: The Internet is full of good videos, you already mentioned, and there’s also an interesting video on Jordan Peterson that also portrays his dark side. I presented it to you and we can discuss also it but not in this interview because I want to kind of…
[00:30:45] Guy Spier: I look forward to that and I’m very curious to see that.
[00:30:48] Tilman Versch: [inaudible 00:30:48] It’s quite long but you can watch it with time. Maybe let’s close this part of the interview with a question that’s going back to the investing world. What is unpopular now in the investing world that you think may offer attractive returns over the next five to ten years?
[00:31:08] Guy Spier: Isn’t that interesting? So how does Peter Thiel… He has a way of formulating that question that I cannot put into my head right now. But what is something that people believe today that is not true? So in part, I think that the lack of portfolio moves is because I don’t fully see and understand what that might be. Obviously, it’ll be easy in retrospect. You know, you’ve stumped me. You could ask it again and I would have to think long and hard…
[00:31:58] Tilman Versch: Let me reframe it. What do you as a value investor love right now?
[00:32:04] Guy Spier: So I think that may be a way of me understanding my own portfolio is to think of the Lindy effect, which was been brought up numerous times by Nassim Taleb, and I think that we’ve just come through a period where when we get innovation, it seems that there are some companies that just win the lottery in that they have a disruptive innovation that is also profitable. So Microsoft with the PC and the PC software interface was disruptive and enormously profitable for Microsoft. Or we go to previous generations, American Telephone and Telegraph managed to benefit from extraordinary network effects and built a very profitable monopoly. We go forward to Google and Amazon, and again, they were disruptive and they were extraordinarily profitable.
But for every one of those, there are hundreds, if not thousands of businesses, that are disruptive in one way or not, but are not profitable. And you know, we can talk about the airline industry that Warren Buffett has talked about so much with the Wright brothers and how no money is being made in the airline industry for the longest time. Or we can talk about the automobile industry where there were thousands of automobile manufacturers and only very, very few survived. And in this period, we have, you know, many businesses that looked like they were the next great big disruptors but perhaps, they turned out, or they clearly turned out not to be. Whether that was WeWork was one great example, and I think that people have general agreement now about that over Uber.
So I think that a far happier place to look, there are some disruptions that happen so unbelievably quickly, if you think of TikTok and very, very short video formats. We think about how you just go straight to not even using the person’s social network, which is the content of the videos, to give them stuff and where the penetration happened in, like, six months. Very, very hard for an investor like me to react to an innovation that’s happening that fast.
But I can say that when you think about cable TV, John Malone, company TCI, and ultimately Liberty Group of companies, that was an innovation that was kind of spreading through the economy on a year by year basis. That resulted in the people who were tuned into it, including Ted Wexler, who’s been an investor in The Liberty Group of companies, you could kind of follow it, and it was happening over a multi-decade period, which is a kind of a much easier pace of change. So I think that there are probably quite a few innovations or changes that are unfolding at a far slower pace but a far more investable pace for us. It’s still not really answered your question because I really don’t know. I wish I did but I don’t.
We’ve just come through a period where when we get innovation, it seems that there are some companies that just win the lottery in that they have a disruptive innovation that is also profitable. But for every one of those, there are hundreds, if not thousands of businesses, that are disruptive in one way or not, but are not profitable.
[00:35:04] Tilman Versch: Maybe that’s also an answer.
[00:35:07] Guy Spier: Yeah. I don’t know.
[00:35:09] Tilman Versch: But thank you for the things you know and you shared in our interview. Thank you very much.
[00:35:14] Guy Spier: Yeah. Thank you, Tilman, and thank you for asking some great questions. You’re an amazing interviewer.
[00:35:19] Tilman Versch: Thank you. You’re an amazing guest.
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