Warren Buffet's long-time running buddy, Charlie Munger, agrees with Cam Fine about one thing: it's time to break up (or at least "simplify") the big banks.
In an interview with CNN at Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting, Munger, who is Warren Buffett's chief lieutenant, said he thinks the big banks are still too complicated and dangerous for the economy. But he doesn't think a recently proposed bill by Senators Sherrod Brown and David Vitter, which has gotten praise from others who want to rein in big banks, is the answer.
"I think if you increase the capital requirements and let them do what they want, they will just get in trouble again," says Munger.
Munger's preferred prescription sounds like a stricter version of the Volcker Rule, which was meant to limit risky trading at the banks and was included in Dodd-Frank, but has yet to be implemented. He would force the banks to get out of their business of underwriting and trading derivatives, financial contracts that allow you to speculate, some say hedge, on commodities, interest rates, and other things. About a year ago, JPMorgan Chase (JPM) announced it had lost billions on a credit derivative hedge that had not worked out as expected.
As CNN reporter Stephen Gandel notes, Munger's words carry additional weight, because he's calling for action against banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America, institutions in which Berkshire Hathaway has sizable investments.
Munger thinks that big banks should be more heavily regulated, and that more regulation will be just what the profit doctor ordered. "By getting out of risky businesses, banks may end up giving back much less of their bull market gains in the down years" He thinks that banks should stick to their knitting, lending. "The ideal bank is pretty boring." I agree.
Gandel thinks that if Munger actually believes that more regulation and smaller size lead to greater profits, then he has a fiduciary duty to Berkshire's shareholders to press banks like Bank of America to pare down their size and accept tighter regulation (instead of unleashing the lobbyists on Congress).Munger thinks that's the job of the regulators. I'd argue it's the role of Congress, but I'd also agree with Munger that Berkshire Hathaway isn't going to persuade Bank of America to accept being broken up or buried under an avalanche of more regulation.
Munger said he and Buffett make investment decisions based on the world they are in, not what they wished it to be, which is fair.
Like Buffet, Munger has always pretty much said what he thinks. As he ages, he's not becoming any less candid. It makes for an interesting interview.