This is a transcript of Warren Buffett’s discussion on CNBC on July 9, 2009, with Julia Boorstin
JULIA BOORSTIN: Warren Buffett, thank you so much for talking to us here in Sun Valley. I want to start off with a question about what happened today. We got some same-store sales numbers. And Costco’s numbers were down despite some of those rebate checks, and I was wondering, you have a lot of consumer-facing businesses, what’s your take on the consumer economy? Is it as bad as it seems?
WARREN BUFFETT: I think it is. I haven’t seen the figures you’re referring to but I had heard ahead of time, not from Costco, they were going to be very poor. Over Father’s Day, I don’t know whether America’s families rebelled against their fathers that day, but sales were bad. Apparel sales were bad. We’re in the underwear business. We see how they’re moving every day and, wives are not buying underwear for their husbands. (Laughs.) It’s still very, very soft.
JULIA: The underwear indicator is bad.
BUFFETT: Yeah, right, underwear is going down. (Laughs.)
JULIA: Looking across the consumer businesses you own, do you have a sense of when the consumer economy will pick up?
BUFFETT: No. I will know when it does. I get very, very contemporaneous figures on it. So when it happens, I’ll know. But there’s nothing in the figures today that tells me what’s going to happen tomorrow. What they do tell me is that today it hasn’t picked up yet.
JULIA: The global economic downturn is a big topic of conversation here. Yesterday I know there was a big panel discussion on it. From everything I’ve heard, it sounds like the mood was very glum. I’ve heard somber. I’ve heard glum. It was not a positive mood. Do you agree with that sentiment?
BUFFETT: Well, I would say that right now we’re in a very, very tough period. We’ve been in it – it really took off last September, mid-September, when it hit the financial world like nothing we’ve ever seen, and that’s gotten spilled over into the economy. And it’s a tough period now. On the other hand, this movie will have a good ending.
JULIA: Now, good ending over what sort of time period?
BUFFETT: (Laughs). I don’t know how long the movie will be. I know the ending will be good but I don’t know whether its a two-hour movie or a four-hour movie.
JULIA: Well, you’ve said that the stimulus has done little, not enough, to get the economy moving. Do you think that people here agree with you on that?
BUFFETT: Well, I don’t know about people agreeing with me, but yeah, I think they probably, generally. But the stimulus was never designed to act fast. People hoped it would start trickling in. In general, I think, and this is no criticism of the administration because I believe in the stimulus and would probably believe in another one, they may be overrated in terms of their ability to end the recession fast.
JULIA: But if you’re advocating another one, are they overrated?
BUFFETT: I think they’re useful, but I think that anybody who looks on them as a panacea is making a mistake. But they’re useful, they’re useful.
JULIA: What do you think should be done now in terms of, do you think there should be another stimulus right now?
BUFFETT: I think there probably should be. But I wouldn’t expect miracles out of it.
JULIA: But so little of the 800-billion dollar stimulus has already been spent. Does it make sense to do another stimulus now, or do we want until some of that money, or more of that money, is out there?
BUFFETT: Well, I would. If you had another one you’d try to load as little on the Christmas tree as possible for specific constituencies, and you would try to get it spent fast. But the President said that originally, let’s try to go with the shovel-ready projects. And then Congress got into the act and I think watered it down some.
JULIA: So if the stimulus is, a stimulus is, multiple stimuli, not a panacea, what is the solution?
BUFFETT: There is no silver bullet. I mean, the original cause of this was the housing bubble. Now a lot of things were contributing to it and flowed out of it and all of that. We built a couple million housing units a year. We formed a million, three-hundred thousand households a year, surprise, we had too many houses at a point. You can’t work that off in a day, or a week, or a month. The best thing we can do is not to be building a lot of new houses now. I mean, we will work off the excess inventory faster. If you want to end the recession as soon as possible, you do nothing to encourage new housing construction. Very tough on the home builders but that is the prescription for getting supply and demand back into balance.
JULIA: And so what does that mean in terms of interest rates?
BUFFETT: Well, you want low interest rates. The more affordable houses are, I mean people have to have a job too, but low interest rates are a boon to housing in that they mean people qualify for owning housing of a given type that wouldn’t otherwise. But we still have too many houses. And the only way to do that, we can either form more households, get all the 14-year-olds to start living together, which they would probably like, (laughs), or we can blow up a bunch of houses, which I don’t think any of us would like, or we can produce more than the household formation and we will use up the inventory and we will get back to a vibrant economy.
JULIA: You supported President Obama –
BUFFETT: 100 percent.
JULIA: And what do you think of his behavior, his decisions since he’s been in office?
BUFFETT: He’s been terrific. I think it’s very important that the people in the country, just as in the 30’s, that they have a leader they believe in. And they’ve got good reason to believe in him. Plus he communicates extraordinarily well so they can understand what he’s doing and why he’s doing it and what the timetables may be and all that sort of thing. So we have the right person in the White House.
JULIA: But you feel like the stimulus hasn’t done enough, so do you agree with the way he’s handled the financial crisis?
BUFFETT: Well, the Congress wrote the stimulus bill. Yeah. (Smiles.)
JULIA: You’ve mentioned that you’re not worried about inflation right now. You’re concerned about inflation down the line. What can the government and the Fed do right now to minimize that risk?
BUFFETT: Well, right now they’re pouring the medicine on. Unfortunately the medicine will have an after-effect, and it will be inflation, and the question is how much and how extreme? We’re going to apply a lot of medicine, and we’re likely to get a lot of inflation down the road. But it’s better to have the patient recover than to sit there and say I’m worried about the after-effects of the medicine so we’ll just ignore it.
JULIA: Oil prices have come way down over the past six weeks. I think they’re now around 60 dollars. Will that help the situation?
BUFFETT: Well, it always helps. I mean, we are importing 10-million plus barrels a day of oil and that’s a tax that the rest of the world imposes on us. We give them goods and services that we produce, or IOUs, in exchange for that. And the cheaper we buy oil, the better off we are.
JULIA: And where do you think oil prices are going to head in another year?
BUFFETT: (Laughs.) If I knew it, I wouldn’t tell you, but I don’t know it. (Laughs.)
JULIA: So President Obama spent a lot of time recently overseas dealing with international relations. Obviously he has a lot of issues on his plate. Is that where he should be focusing his attention?
BUFFETT: Well, it’s important that he do that, obviously. The number one job is the economy but that doesn’t mean you ignore the rest of the world. Plus he has this, he is favorably regarded by the rest of the world and he should take advantage of that. He should establish relationships that are better with important countries than has been the case in the last eight years.
JULIA: So do you think the biggest issue that Obama is facing right now is the U.S. economy?
BUFFETT: For sure. I mean, if you’re unemployed, your most important job is to get another job, and get an income. And the country is becoming unemployed to a degree. And it’s very important the economy gets, comes back. It will come back. Government has less influence on how fast that happens than a lot of people would like to hope that it would. But government is a player, but it has no silver bullet. The economy will come back, though.
JULIA: It seems like one of the big issues facing the economy, and also a big topic of discussion here, is health care. I know that there were a number of panels on health care here today. How grave a problem do you think is, do you think the U.S. health care system is, and what do you think the solution is?
BUFFETT: Well, (laughs), I know how big a problem it is but I don’t know what the solution is. If I knew the solution I wouldn’t hesitate to offer it. But I don’t bring anything to that party that hundreds of thousands of other people don’t know as much or more about it than I do. But it’s obviously a huge problem when it’s using up whatever it may be, some people say it’s as high as 17 percent of GDP. But we can’t go on with health care accelerating at a faster rate than GDP. We’ve done it for a long time, but we need a solution, and there are better people, people better qualified than I.
JULIA: One of the ideas that Senate Democrats are talking about is a surcharge tax on individuals earning over 200-hundred thousand dollars. What do you think of that as an idea to help address the health care cost issue?
BUFFETT: Well, I wouldn’t do it in respect necessarily to the health care specifically, but I think that on balance the rich have been undertaxed compared to the middle class and the lower class. I mean, over the last decade in particular, the tax law has been tilted in favor of guys like me and we don’t need any help. And there are plenty of people in this country that do.
JULIA: So what would you advocate in terms of the future of taxes?
BUFFETT: I would have something that hits guys like me harder and hits the people that served us breakfast this morning a little less.
JULIA: So where is that dividing line? Is it 200-hundred thousand dollars? Does that make sense as a –
BUFFETT: I think it should be more progressive the higher up you go. But I think it’s ridiculous when my tax on capital gains is less than the payroll tax on what you’re earning today.
JULIA: What do you think some of the other people here would say about that?
BUFFETT: Well, you’ll have to ask them. (Smiles.) Some of them would agree. No, a lot of them would agree. They wouldn’t like it. Nobody likes having their taxes increase. I don’t like having my taxes increase. But on the other hand, we’re raising 2.3, something like that, trillion. We may spend four-trillion. There’s going to have to be some adjustment made someplace and I think it’s better to adjust it, to some degree, on guys like me rather than on the people who gave me breakfast this morning.
JULIA: How long — do you think taxes will go up in the near future?
BUFFETT: I don’t know about the near future, but they will go up over time because we’re not going to bring spending down from four-trillion to 2.3 trillion, and we’re not going to take up revenues unless we — it will be helped some when we get a recovery, but we’ll need somewhat higher taxes someplace.
JULIA: So back to the health care issue. Speaking of taxes, one of the questions is whether to tax employer-provided health care. And this is a big issue of debate. What do you think?
BUFFETT: It will all be, there will be so many tradeoffs involved, it won’t be a perfect bill. Nobody could design a perfect bill. So, you can’t really look at one part of it until you’re looking at other parts of it. So I don’t have any magic answer on that.
JULIA: Another thing that we’re hearing a lot about is the hospital industry has agreed to a lot of cost cuts. We’ve seen the pharmaceutical industry agree to a lot of discounts. Together, that amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars. How much are those kinds of compromises going to be to finding a health care solution?
BUFFETT: Well, they’re going to be important. But they problem you have is you have a health care situation now where more than two-trillion dollars a year is being spent. That means two-trillion dollars is going to somebody, whether its doctors, nurses, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, you name it. Everyone is going to look at that bill and they’re going to say, ‘Am I getting more or less?’ It’s like a tax law change. Every line in the tax code has a constituency. Well, every dollar in medical expenses has a constituency, and that’s the tough thing at the end. It will take a lot of leadership and some statesmanship on the part of people to get something. But it is a question that needs to be addressed.
JULIA: Now, in addition to health care, this year digital media and distribution of media and monetization of media has been a big topic of conversation here. Last year we talked about the Kindle and you were really enjoying your Kindle. What do you think is the big topic this year?
BUFFETT: Well, I’m here as part of their outreach program. I’m the village idiot in terms of this stuff. So they try everything out on me, if it gets past me any three-year-old can do it. I’m the wrong guy to ask ..
JULIA: Have they tried to get you to use something this year?
BUFFETT: People are always trying to get me to use things. Like I say, I will be the last guy around using a landline phone and reading a newspaper and doing all those things.
JULIA: Have you tried Twitter?
BUFFETT: I have not tried Twitter, although I met the fellow who, one of the co-founders of it, he’s from a little town in Nebraska called Clark and he went to the University of Nebraska for a couple of years. So can’t be all bad. (Laughs.)
JULIA: It can’t be all bad. Now one question, since we’re hearing a lot about watching television on the internet, have you ever watched TV on the internet?
BUFFETT: I haven’t watch TV on the internet, but I have used the internet a lot. A lot.
JULIA: So, here, talking to media CEOs, talking to CEOs from a big range of businesses, the CEO of Coca-Cola , American Express , they’re all here, what is the sense you’re getting from them about the state of the economy?
BUFFETT: Well, they would see it the same way. The economy, they would probably say that the decline has stopped, most of them would say this in their business, but there’s been no rebound. Now that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be a further decline. It doesn’t mean the rebound won’t start tomorrow. But what they are seeing in their businesses is sort of a flat line after a big descent.
JULIA: Is there anything that you’ve heard here from these CEOs that surprised you?
BUFFETT: No, I wouldn’t say that at all. They’re seeing the same things I see. We’re in about 70 businesses ourselves, and I’ve got CEOs of every one of those companies , so I’ve already talked to a lot of them before I got here.
JULIA: So I have to ask you a question —
BUFFETT: Uh oh. (Laughs.)
JULIA: I know that you are friends with LeBron James. I know he’s a huge fan of your’s. Yesterday I was chatting with him and he said he’d be game for a game of pickup basketball with any CEO, anyone here who is interested. Are you going to play pickup basketball with LeBron James?
BUFFETT: I’ve already done it. I played him in basketball a couple of year ago. We played for hours, and maybe I’ll even reveal the results of that —
JULIA: Who won?
BUFFETT: Well, I will play him any game he wants to play as long as I get to keep score. (Laughs.) But I won’t tell him my scoring method ahead of time.
JULIA: So there’s no match here that’s been planned?
BUFFETT: We’re going to play golf, but not basketball.
JULIA: Is he a good golf player?
BUFFETT: He tells me he’s never played. I’ve played 65 years and if you want to place a bet on either one of us, bet on him. (Laughs.) He’s got a special set of clubs, though. Phil Knight at Nike gave him this special set of clubs, so who knows what it’s going to be like.
JULIA: Maybe he’ll be a big pro. Well, thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate it.
BUFFETT: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks.