Buffett Talks Recovery, Bonds, and Banks

A myriad of Warren Buffett-related headlines have been coming out of Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting, ranging from Buffett’s thoughts on the economy to Berkshire’s succession plans to just what Buffett’s mood is these days.

Among the more relevant stories is Buffett’s latest take on the economy, which he tells CNBC is “slow, very slow, and at the moment, still getting slower.” Buffett says we’ll see more unemployment in the short term and inflation in the less-short-term, but he also reiterates his faith in the economy over the long haul. “We won’t have more unemployment five years from now than we have now,” he said. “I’ll guarantee you that. I think it will be appreciably less. … We have a wonderful economy over time. The markets overshoot. People make mistakes. I mean, it’s not perfect at all times. We had six panics in the 19th century, the Great Depression in the 20th century and all kinds of recessions. We do come out of them.”

Part of what will determine how quickly we come out of the current problems is how the government’s actions pan out, Buffett says. “But the biggest thing that brings us out of [tough times] is that we have a system that works very well over time even though it gets gummed up periodically. … Just look back at a couple of hundred years ago, how people were living and how they live now. We’re not any smarter than they were a couple of hundred years ago. We’ve got the same land and everything else. But we’ve unleashed human potential and will continue to do so. So twenty years from now, fifty years from now, your kids and grandchildren are going to live far better than you live.”

Buffett says he sees no real pickup in a variety of businesses Berkshire owns or has stakes in. “But they’ll be doing fine in a few years,” he adds. “I don’t know whether they’ll be doing fine in three months, six months, two years. I know they’ll be doing fine in five years, and I hope they’ll be doing fine in five months.”

Other thoughts the “Oracle of Omaha” has offered during Berkshire’s meeting (a tip of the cap to Alex Crippen of CNBC’s Warren Buffett Watch on these):

  • Debt, taxes & inflation: Buffett says that “one way or another we’re going to need more taxes down the road” to deal with the government’s spending spree. “There’s no magic wand on this.” But he says the U.S. can take higher tax rates. “It did very well, extremely well, in the 60s and the 90s with tax rates considerably higher in many areas than now,” he said. “So, I think it’s a question of, you know, who gets socked and when.” If the U.S. continues to run big deficits, it could have serious consequences, he said.

The way out of debt, Buffett says, is inflation. “A country that continuously expands its debt as a percentage of GDP and raises much of the money abroad to finance that, at some point it’s going to inflate its way out of the burden of that debt,” he said. “I mean, every country that’s denominated its debt in its own currency and has found itself with uncomfortable amounts of debt relative to the rest of the world, in the end they inflate. And that becomes a tax on everybody that has fixed dollar investments”

  • Bank stocks: Buffett told onlookers that he would buy all of Wells Fargo and U.S. Bancorp — two of Berkshire’s major holdings — if he could. The firm would have to become a registered bank holding company to do so, however. “Buffett says they’re making a lot of money and have strong earnings power,” reports Crippen. Referring to the fact that Wells Fargo was selling for $9 a share earlier this year, Buffett said, “If I had put all my net worth in one stock, that would be the stock.”
  • Corporate bond opportunities: Buffett says he bought some corporate bonds “very, very cheaply” a few months ago for both Berkshire and his personal account. And Berkshire Vice Chairman Charles Munger says some of the bonds Berkshire bought are already up between 20% and 25%

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