Charlie Munger is widely quoted in value investing community for his multidisciplinary ideas. However, he has some unconventional advice on the subject of corporate governance also which deserves a discussion. Let’s look at some of the insights from Munger on the issue of governance.
Munger believes more in the spirit of corporate governance rather than enforcement of compliance rules and regulations. If the intention is not right, people can always bend the rules and find workarounds for carrying out unethical practices without breaking the law. But when you know that the intentions are right then even an occasional instance of non-compliance doesn’t bother you because you trust the person and know that things will eventually get sorted out.
Munger is of the opinion that different companies have different cultures and you cannot come up with a one-size-fits-all solution in form generic compliance rules. An organization is made up of diverse set of people with different interests and values. Such collection of people behaves as a complex adaptive system. The moment complex rules are infused to command more control it invariably results in unintended consequence. So the solution is not to device more rules but to make the system simpler.
In the annual meeting for Wesco Financials in 2007, Munger pointed out –
A lot of people think if you just had more process and more compliance—checks and double checks and so forth—you could create a better result in the world. Well, Berkshire has had practically no process. We had hardly any internal auditing until they forced it on us. We just try to operate in a seamless web of deserved trust and be careful whom we trust.
This brings us to the Munger’s first idea for simplifying the corporate governance puzzle.
Seamless Web of Deserved Trust
A system in which the individuals making decisions do not bear the consequences of those decisions seems incompatible with a seamless web of deserved trust. Munger explains –
Good character is very efficient. If you can trust people, your system can be way simpler. There’s enormous efficiency in good character and dis-efficiency in bad character.
Moreover, unethical behavior is contagious. Gresham’s law says that bad values (or currency or people) drive out the good values from a system. If you find that it’s easy to cheat and steal in an organization, it’s just a matter of time before majority of the people in that system start exhibiting dishonest and unethical behaviour. Even if everybody was absolutely honest to begin with. Such is the human behaviour.