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Monday, March 10, 2008

The 'sage of Omaha'

Warren Buffett is a man I deeply admire.
This, despite my religious orientation, despite my socialist convictions, despite my contempt for your average rich man, and despite the fact that I have nothing but loathing for people who slaver over money and will do virtually anything to lay their hands on a bit of it: not billions of dollars but a few paltry lakhs of rupees!
Visiting the following link might help some of my readers to figure out why I respect the man:
wikipedia, too, offers a good thumbnail biography.
Given a slightly different roll of the dice, I might have been proud to follow in his footsteps, and I shall be delighted if my daughter does. If she does, indeed, make a mountain of money (which, of course, will depend not only on skill, courage, tenacity but a very large dose of luck - where would Sachin Tendulkar be today if he had been born in China?) I hope she will know how to spend it rightly. With $62 billion in his kitty, Buffet still lives in the house he once bought for $31,000 (which is why I should be ashamed if my daughter became even a mini-version of one pretty pathetic Mr. Mittal).
I should be glad if some people wrote in to say they have understood exactly why I respect the man.

17 comments:

Kishore Penmetsa said...

About four years ago, I got interested in the stock market and began buying books left and right on how to invest. Most of the books were just "cookbooks" that gave me a very pretty picture of the stock market and all the definitions I needed to understand what was going on when I watched TV or read the wall street journal. I then got my hands on Benjamin Graham's "The Intelligent Investor" that gave me all the insight I needed to plunge in. Did I make lots of money? no...I did not because I have not been as disciplined as he was expecting his readers to be. Whenever my stock went down by 20% or more, I got out at a loss and re-invested the money in some "hot-pick" as seen on TV to make up for the lost money. As a result, over 4 years I haven't even gained 5% on an average. Warren Buffett followed Ben Graham's principles ever since he was the great value investor's student in college. The only A-grade that Ben Graham gave in his course(I forget which one) was to Mr. Buffett.

Warren Buffett's story is one of perseverance, strong belief in princples and patience. He never looked for short term gains. Now, whenever he buys a stock, it automatically goes up because people pounce on it when they get to know of his purchase. This man filed his first tax return when he was 13(wikipedia). Most people have trouble filing their tax returns even when they are 31. I have great admiration for this unassuming, straight-talking man who not only is a good investor but also knows how to make shareholders in his companies happy. Look at Geico Insurance for instance : no one can beat their national price averages and still make as much money as they do.

If you are more interested in his talks or advice, go to the Berkshire Hathaway website and look at his investor letters. No fancy language, no promises, just what he thinks he will achieve and how he plans to go about the task.

Suvroda, I am with you when you say that you have nothing but admiration for this Oracle of Omaha. Warren Buffett is no genius. He is just a very very patient man. Even in a market downturn, he doesn't blink. He just holds on to his picks because of his belief in a company's fundamentals. Apart from his business acumen, he has donated most of his money to the Bill and Melinda Gates' foundation that speaks volumes about him. If 20 Ambanis contribute even 1/10th of what he has given away in charity, India would be in a different place.

Kishore Penmetsa

Rajdeep said...

Faith In Action

"God does not give man a task he could not accomplish."

"There is nothing more valuable than something given free."

- Japanese proverbs.

Thank you for the thought provoking post. I have been reading about Buffett since last year. He proves that a man can choose to live a simple, uncomplicated life whatever the circumstances and however big he becomes. Here is a man accomplishing his task with aplomb. The more a man has, the more difficult it is to give it all away. And the true prize that he must be seeking is nothing more than the warm glow it brings to do something good and fruitful.

But doing good has to be in ones nature. It does not need a very rich and powerful man to do good for this world. Forget about the super rich. It has been calculated that if all the people in the world, who have a roof over their heads and a source of income just enough to make both ends meet, could donate even a paltry sum of less than twenty rupees a month, all the poverty in this world could be eliminated, and every single human being would have access to proper medical care and education. The implimentation of a 'world health & education insurance scheme' would not cost much after all! But are we ready for it?
We talk of population explosion and global warming, and a host of other horrendous lies. We try to find a problem (when there is none) and speeches that would fit a label, and shut our five senses to the causes and the solutions that matter. We do not talk of the man made uncouthness, poverty and strife.

The kingdom of heaven does not exist anywhere else. I believe it is this very world as we make around us, and for those who bend their hearts, that cherish the image of heaven, towards a little goodliness. For, what is goodliness other than Godliness! And man has been created in the image of God if only he would care or dare to believe it. Great men do not do great things; they do small things greatly and fill their world with snatches of goodliness taken straight from the heart and given with a smile. This last bit is important too as after all no less a person than Mother Teresa has said, "You may give the poor all you have, but if you give them without a smile you give them nothing."

True faith is knowing you can do good, whatever the circumstances, however big or small you are. And 'luck' is just the kind of people you have around you in life.

Rajdeep said...

Postscript: We tend to forget that Mother Earth still provides enough bounty for all of us, if only we are willing to share it peacefully!

Sayan said...

I did not know much about Warren Buffett apart from the fact that he had been ranked by Forbes as the richest man in the world. But after reading the thumbnail biography provided by Wikipedia, I am stunned by the zest and spirit of the man. How deep a man's belief and how nurtured and carefully cultivated his faith must be to get even close to Buffett! Only that man works who works for the sake of work itself- and Buffett is such an example. Seeing that he has not been affected even a little by his enormous fortune,I realize that the man must love his work in the truest sense of the word. He could have easily got himself all the comforts this world can provide. How strong a man's will and how deep his belief in principles must be to be able to renounce worldly pleasures in face of such temptations! Such temptations can violently swirl away the minds of even the most discerning of men. Sir, you are right in calling him a sage because none but a sage can conjure such deep loyalty to an ideal. It reminds me a little of the story of Nachiketa who resisted all persuasions and temptations offered by Yama, the abode of death, thus displaying the earnestness of his aspiration.
The will power and faith Mr. Buffett has shown is truly remarkable. The Mittals of this world do seem pathetic in stature when compared to Buffett.
It's sad that I hadn't cared to know about the lives of businessmen, for I had always regarded them as people mongering after money. I hadn't realized that ideals can be found everywhere; one only needed to look.
Thanks a lot for putting up this post, Sir.
Sayan Datta.

Sudipto Basu said...

Let me begin by saying that all the comments above mine were very educative-- these taught me a number of small things that in the long picture seem to make all the differences.

As in Sayan da's case, I didn't know much about Warren Buffett than that he is a multi-billionaire who always is on the top of the pile in all the 'The Richest' lists... It was only today that I learnt in considerable detail about Warren Buffett the man.

Such an unassuming attitude, and as stated in the rediff article, frugality in living is a rare virtue-- yes, rare indeed. That he chooses to deliberately shun all pomp and riches makes me appreciate the man very much.

"According to him, there are many rules to win the game. The first rule is not to lose. The second rule is not to forget the first rule." That indeed is the most concise success-mantra ever given. And yet, this man had lost it once-- he sold off his shares when their market price had just crossed the cost price, not waiting for a day more, when the values suddenly soared to five times the cost price! Which taught him an all-important virtue: patience pays. A lesson learnt in his teens helped him to take business decisions much later: he would not lose confidence and sell off shares of companies he knew inside out and trusted in, even if they was going through a rough patch. Because, sooner or later, the sun is bound to shine on people who work hard with clear cut goals in mind-- so the companies would surely gain back their lost status in a matter of time. And yet, Buffett has a very important strategy to buy profitable shares, which may seem more than a bit contradicting if clubbed together with the previous factoid: "I never attempt to make money on the stock market. I buy on the assumption that they could close the market the next day and not reopen it for five years." But it is not contradicting if analysed a bit carefully: the important thing here is that he wants to invest in a company he trusts. If he'll make money by buying a certain company's shares is not his consideration: in the long term, he is confident that his investments should pay off, simple because he trusts himself. There's a third all-important caveat too, not totally irrelevant to the previous points: "A success mantra? Much success can be attributed to inactivity. Most investors cannot resist the temptation to constantly buy and sell."

And then there is his all-important advice for budding businessmen. "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently. It's far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price." Self-explanatory statements, in my opinion, that naturally draw parallels with an age old nugget of wisdom: "That you may die just tomorrow should govern your actions today. What would you love to do if this was the last day in your life?" The very awareness of dark-times, which may befall us only if we take a single careless step, should make us decide our actions very carefully.

Since Sir compared Buffett and Mittal, I think it would be worthwhile to note how different these two men are in their attitude towards their own children. While Mittal feels quite happy and satisfied to have a grand and very useless marriage extravaganza in Versailles, Buffett plans to give the majority of his property to charity-organisations, leaving his children "just enough so that they would feel that they could do anything, but not so much that they would feel like doing nothing". Naturally, a sane and calculative man like Buffett evokes more respect that a petty-minded fool like Mittal: Buffett naturally proves that he is a father that Mittal can never aspire to become!

Which finally brings me to the last thing I have to say. Like Sir has said all throughout, degrees do not matter much; in fact often they don't matter at all! Witness Buffett's strategy of recruiting his employees: "Flashy degrees? No, we need good brains! Buffett doesn't believe in flashy degree and titles: He says, Susan came to Borsheims (jewellery shop) 25 years ago as a $4-an-hour saleswoman. Though she lacked a managerial background, I did not hesitate to make her CEO in 1994. She's smart, she loves the business, and she loves her associates. That beats having an MBA degree any time. Charlie and I are not big fans of resumes. Instead, we focus on brains, passion and integrity, he says. Great managers? One of our great managers is Cathy Baron Tamraz, who has significantly increased Business Wire's earnings since we purchased it early in 2006. She is an owner's dream. It is positively dangerous to stand between Cathy and a business prospect. Cathy, it should be noted, began her career as a cab driver." Rather than look for pretentiously impressive CVs, Buffett analyses how much a person loves his/her work, and how he/she gels together in a team, and how intelligent he/she is in business. How do degrees, after all, matter?

And yes, this man admires simplicity. Why else would he choose to address his investors in the most non-techinical of terms, giving them pearls of wisdom instead of pages full of sombre-sounding gibberish that no one wishes to read?! Rather than being nosey, Buffett writes a single letter to all his CEOs every year clearly demarcating his goals and giving his advice. The rest naturally follows the expected pattern: after all, every CEO is chosen personally, and much trusted, by Buffett.

Thanks a lot, Sir. That you helped me know so much about this great man, rightly called a sage, and his wise words is nothing short of a personal privilege. I may need and remember these when I myself walk down the way to my career.

With regards,
Sudipto.

Gerald Ford said...

Hello,

Great post on Warren Buffet. Frugality definitely is the key to success in life. Most of the wealthiest people in the world, are people would not expect because they have enough discipline to save money rather than spend it on a whim. I wish I had that discipline. :P

SleepyPea said...

My comment isn't directly related to your post, Suvro da (since there has never been a doubt in my mind that individuals like Buffett were meant to be the 'archtypes' of utopian capitalism in a sense...but I won't get into a debate here). I will say nothing but say 'Yipee' for a man like Buffett - just as I cheer Gerry, our local coffee shop owner (he is many other 'things' besides), who left home at 16 and now runs a coffee business...
My comment is related to something Rajdeep has said - "We talk of population explosion and global warming, and a host of other horrendous lies. We try to find a problem (when there is none) and speeches that would fit a label, and shut our five senses to the causes and the solutions that matter. We do not talk of the man made uncouthness, poverty and strife."
I'm unsure of what you mean here, Rajdeep, and I would like some clarification. Do you mean to say that the population problem and the climate change problem are myths? Or are you talking about what Schumacher talked about when he said that there are divergent and convergent problems?

Rajdeep said...

A scrambled reply

Vivekananda too said, "work for the sake of work". Few people in his own land go by what he taught.

In my opinion, no one should try to make comparisons between as far apart people as Buffett and Mittal.

About the clarifications asked for, I can only tell you as much as my limited reading allows. About poverty, many experts are of the view that it is man made. And as I said, donating just fifteen to twenty rupees per month is enough to wipe out poverty as per calculations by experts. Amartya Sen and Muhammad Yunus have been talking on similar lines too. If the developed nations gave one percent of their GDPs too it is possible. They give something around 0.27 percent now. I am not sure about the exact figures but it is something like that. Do you think that is too much? Think of how much we spend on weapons, space technology etc.

About global warming, it is a much debated topic these days and many answers are unclear ones. Firstly, the average temperature of the earth has actually lowered by two degrees from 17 to 15. These fluctuations of the earths temperature are natural and have been occuring for a long time. There is no direct proof that the temperature has risen due to rise in pollution. Here we come to the real problem. The problem is not global warming, nor are many countries going to be submerged as some people are predicting, as there are many other experts who say that such predictions are grossly exaggerated and rise or fall in temperature by a few degrees has never caused so much havoc. The real problem is pollution and the increase in nitrogen oxide and photochemicals in the air of big cities. This causes breathing problems and may cause diseases to people in the long run. I only meant we are turning away from the real problem. And many developed counries have not reduced their garbage and pollution levels though they demand the same from developing nations. Pollution levels have changed drastically in the space of just a few decades so naturally mankind has not had the time to adapt to such changes. Some developed countries are talking about recycling plastic garbage etc but results show that recycling plastic itself produces a lot of harmful pollutants. Nothing concrete is being done and countries are just eyewashing each other while the problem remains. Cars are increasing in number and so are flights. Clean energy is still largely at an experimental stage. But there are things possible. Faster trains and other forms of public transport could be introduced and popularized instead of jet planes. The magnetic levitated train has been invented long back. A non stop journey by such a train would not take more than a few hours to reach as far as say Kolkata to Delhi. It would reduce pollution to one sixth that of air travel.
Another big environmental problem is dumping of nuclear wastes into the sea. And some developed countries practice fire drills at airports. Try and find out how much fuel is wasted just on one such drill. Sorry for the hotch potch reply. But I hope I have made some of the points clearer. Thank you.

Sayan said...

With Sir's permission I would like to add someting to my previous comment -
It is no doubt a fact that Buffett is a man of courage, patience, perseverence and considerable skill. Without these qualities no man has ever made it to the top in any sphere of life. But what attracts me most is his unshakeable faith in himself and his belief. Not all men successful lie on the same plane of greatness. To form a belief and hold on to it for an entire lifetime is nothing short of genius. For genius is not a measure of skill; nor the amount of money a person has made, but the way in which he lives his life. Lifelong dedication is a virtue most difficult to learn, and even the most earnest aspirants of greatness have trouble in standing true each time. Nothing is as capricious as the mind itself, and the ability to always steer clear is nothing less than sainthood. So many of us ensconce ourselves in this faith or that and believe that we have at last found a panacea for all ills; yet painfully we leave through the same door as we had entered.
Only men who are able to form such belief are able to develop deep love in the goodness of the world around them and God. It is this faith that helped Kipling bear quietly the pain and the trauma of losing a son in the battle field and holding his head up and looking straight as ever each time fate deserted him. None but a Kipling could immortalise the agony of losing a son and yet the necessity of standing up and facing the wind bravely through the poem 'My boy Jack' which goes like this -
'Have you news of my boy Jack?'
Not this tide.
'When d'you think that he'll come back?'
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

'Has any one else had word of him?'
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

'Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?'
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind -
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

;and none but a Tagore could compose ' Aaj jyotsna rate sobai gechhe bone' after the cremation of his son.
It takes decades for most to form a steady belief and therefore those who effortlessly hold on to their faith at all times are the ones to be worshipped.
It is always better to look up to a Spinoza than a Mani Bhaumik.
Sayan Datta.

Rajdeep said...

continued.....

The gap between the rich and the poor has been rising steadily over the past sixty years. Though many countries are claiming they have reduced the number of poor people, the fact remains that there are more poor people in the world today than ever before. The two vital points are:
1. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and,
2. The percentage of impoverished poeple is much higher today than it was sixty years ago. All this despite the fact that the number of organizations fighting poverty have increased so much. I checked some of the figures. In 1960, the GDP of the 20 richest countries was 18 times that of the 20 poorest ones. But in 1995 it increased to 35 times. The developed countries need to give up just one percent of their national incomes to not only wipe out poverty but provide education and medical care for all as well. In the year 2000, the developed nations promised 0.7 percent of their national incomes. But till now the maximum they have given is a miserly 0.23 percent. It is clear that the number of mouths to feed is not the real problem after all. There is ample wealth to provide for all, and both food production accompanied by wastage (mostly due to lack of storage facilities and faster transport) have increased manifold as well. Distribution of that wealth is the main problem. I would put the question back. What do you think? What do these facts and figures tell us about humanity? Are they generous like Buffett? Is the thinking of problems facing us on the right track? Do you think that 'population explosion' is one of the main problems we are facing? Do you think it is not a myth? Do you still think poverty is not man made? If yes, then what percentage of the earth does the whole human race inhabit? If there is global warming how has the temperature changed? Are such fluctuations unique or have they occurred before? If they have occurred before then what were the after effects then? The answers to these questions should tell you whether 'global warming' and 'population explosion' are lies or not. I would like to hear Suvro da and others comment on my last two posts. Thank you.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

The population explosion is a very real problem, Rajdeep. There simply isn't enough water any more in the Ganga, for instance, adequately to support the entire population dependent on it, no matter how egalitarian we become - at best we can equalise misery all round! Global warming, of course, is a more uncertain issue: the scientific jury is still out on this, so I won't comment. But that overwhelming amounts of industrial pollution is mucking up our environment in a thousand different ways is too obvious to be a matter of debate any longer, and it all stems from this unholy combination of too many people on the one hand and the insatiable greed of a tiny but rapacious minority on the other: that cannot be gainsaid ( I once heard a joke that Ted Turner - founder of CNN - refused to become President of the United States because he did not want to give up real power!)

Extreme inequality of income and wealth is, to my mind, a wholly bad thing. I can rationalise small differences - it's okay for a surgeon to earn twenty times as much as a rickshawpuller (so long as the latter gets a living wage at least), but no man ought to have thousands, or even millions of times more than another. The UN Human Development Report of 1998 said that the 350-odd billionaires of the world had more money than the entire population of south Asia! ... but far worse is the question of how people make their billions, and how they spend it. There are far too many crooks and sadists among the world's super rich, alas. And indeed, if only the typical rich man were a little more charitable (or at least humane - find out how De Beers used to run their diamond mines in South Africa, or how the East Asian sweatshops are run even today to churn out luxury garments for the swank stores in Paris, London and New York), the world would have been a far less horrible place.

Too many supposedly intelligent and educated young people today have come to worship the moneyed class, regardless of how that money is made and spent. It was in this context that I wanted to draw attention to Buffett's example. Elsewhere I have written that Steve Jobs ought to be admired for his ideals rather than his money. Attitude is everything, and our young need to cultivate a healthy attitude towards money (and the 'glamour' associated with it). The few hundred billionaires of the world can do very little harm by themselves, unless they were worshipped and blindly served by millions who feed on scraps off the rich men's tables: all those 'smart' executives that the IITs and IIMs churn out by the thousands every year - the contemporary avatar of Hitler's brainwashed, supremely arrogant and monstrously cruel stormtroopers. It has been well said that one lion is far less dangerous than a million rats!

Rajdeep said...

Thank you very much for your comment Suvro da. Yes, the water problem is a grave problem now. I am planning to read up more on that in future.

SleepyPea said...

I'll put in my two-bits. First off, thank you Suvro da for putting in your words about population explosion. And I'm feeling too lazy to elaborate - so in spite of the truncheons that might be aimed at my head - I'll just make one point. Within social scientific academic circles, the scholars who argue that 'population explosion' is not a problem are either 'wearing-horsie-blinders-Marxists' and/or are the 'thniffle-thniffle' post-colonial/subaltern theorists for whom all problems have arisen from capitalism/colonialism...
Global warming is indeed a 'hot' issue. The thing is that scientists are moving away from the term 'global warming' these days - they now call it 'climate change': this is because through the last couple of decades scientists figured out that our planet wasn't 'warming' per se, as previously thought - but that the climate was going through rapid and quite bizarre changes (cooling, heating, storms, droughts…) in too short a time period. The whole debate of climate change covers a pretty wide area, and yes, indeed there have been many a nasty scandal (an article which came out in Science in the late 70s, which ‘proved’ that global warming was ‘real’, was torn apart later by another group of scientists, who showed how the authors of the first article had used biased data to get to their results).
That said, currently the overwhelming majority of scientists (at least in the U.S) who are stoutly maintaining that climate change patterns are not human made - happen to be industrial scientists. That does speak volumes - at least in my mind! Plus, there are other websites (one of them being www.enviornmentalism.com – a rather ironic name!) run by (sadly enough) rabid Ayn Rand fans – and these folks are completely convinced that climate change is not a problem - but has been 'socially constructed' to be one - just to take the focus off some of the 'real' problems. On this website, among other things, one will find scientists, who also claim that the increase of CO2 is actually beneficial to our environment and our planet. Yes. And so the debates continue.
However, at least for me, one telling fact does seem to be that an overwhelming majority of scientists who are working in academic institutions are completely convinced that climate change is 'a fact' and that it is caused by human 'created' pollutants, while the scientists, who are employed by large industries seem to be saying otherwise. Plus, there are numerous studies conducted by conservation biologists and ecologists who have noticed quite radical changes in migration patterns of birds, loss of biodiversity, spread of diseases in the upper latitudes, which were unnoticed earlier…however, this of course, could be ‘usual’ – yet once again, these scientists are heavily skeptical (and these are university scientists). For according to them, the change is too sudden, in too short a period of time.
So, while I do not have the necessary scientific expertise to say that I ‘know for sure’ that climate change is a human made problem, and a long-term issue (that is to say, the catastrophic effects will probably not become evident before at least another 100 years…so we jolly well might say ‘why should we care about that!’ – But that gets us into another area of environmental ethics!), which does indeed need to be addressed ‘right now’…I will say that since two groups of scientists seem to be pitted against each other in this debate, and one stands to make an immediate monetary gain by saying ‘No, no” to climate change – I will side with the scientists who are saying ‘yes, there is a problem’. Yes. I probably am biased. For it is equally possible that the second group (academic scientists) are probably all banding together simply because ‘climate change’ is seen as one of the most ‘sexy’ scientific issues of the day!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for writing in, all commentators so far - but please don't let the discussion veer off into unintended directions. I was discussing reasons for admiring the Warren Buffett type of tycoon here, not the population explosion or the reality or otherwise of global warming!

Sriranjani Datta said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nishant said...

Hello Sir,
Warren Buffet's journey towards being the world's richest man is truely inspirational. Indeed today if we ask any affluent man (leave aside the truely "Rich" ones)what would he do with the money that he saves after fulfilling his basic necessities, 8 out of 10 would definitely answer it something like this- shift to a "Bigger House", buy a "Bigger Car" or some or the other unnecessary luxury, but Mr. Buffet's story shows rather teaches us how one can be contended with just the basic amenities of life even when one has the ability to afford other luxuries. Though some ignorant people might call this to be miserly attitude, but that truely isnt the case. Mr. Buffet's life story is an answer to all those who are under the illusion that its only when man flaunts his material assets when he is called "WEALTHY". Hats Off to you Mr. Warren Buffet

FEARLESS said...

Good Afternoon Sir.What I feel is that the majority of the rich people of the world forget the reasons behind what they are today.Rome was not built in a day,neither is wealth worth millions emassed.To see things from a much lower level,when I had been to Sikkim,I was more than pleased to observe Pushkar Tamang,the then hotel manager of Green Hills,where we were staying;his attitude towards life.When we were checking in,I found him sitting on a broken stool,while his attendant was lolling on the sofa a few yards away.When I asked him the reason,he answered:"This stool has been with me ever since...since I used to sell handicrafts on the pavements of Gangtok...I cannot afford to part with it come what may..."This may remind us of something the young emperor had said to Omura and the American ambassador in The Last Samurai:"...We must never forget who we are or where we come from..."I believe that that people rich or poor(both terms being extremely relative),who forget the steps they have left behind in emassing millions lose the knowledge of the correct use of money.They become busy joining the ratrace of quenching the never-ending thirst for money.As you used to say:"We must treat money as our servants and by no way the other way round."I like to think that there was,there is and there will be some good left in the world when I come accross the likes of Pushkar Tamang who understand the real meaning of money or wealth,whatever.