If the United States of America were a stock, Warren E. Buffett would buy it.
Even with partisan gridlock in Washington, a sluggish economic recovery and soaring health care costs, the billionaire investor remains bullish on this country and its prospects.
“The world is uncertain. Stock prices are uncertain. The future of America is not uncertain,” Buffett said Wednesday during a wide-ranging, hourlong question-and-answer session with employees at The Buffalo News.
Buffett is chairman of the newspaper, which his companies have owned since 1977, and he was in Buffalo Wednesday to honor his friend Stanford Lipsey, who has retired after 32 years as publisher of The News and is now publisher emeritus.
Buffett fielded questions from employees and a reporter on topics including the high unemployment rate, raising the minimum wage, investing in the stock market, advising new college graduates and buying the Buffalo Bills.
The 82-year-old “Oracle of Omaha” is a renowned investor who ranks No. 4 on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people, with $53.5 billion. He flies on a private jet – his only trapping of wealth – but his tastes run to nighttime snacks of hash browns, covered with ketchup and washed down with a Cherry Coke.
His Berkshire Hathaway owns outright, or has a stake in, such noted brands as Coca-Cola, Fruit of the Loom, GEICO and Dairy Queen. Buffett said Berkshire’s approximately 75 companies have 288,000 employees in all.
Asked what was vital to his success, Buffett quipped that being born in the United States was a stroke of good fortune.
He acknowledged the problems facing this country but said America through its history has shown a resilience and an ability to leverage the productivity of its citizens.
Buffett cited the population of the United States from the first census, in 1790, of roughly 4 million people, and he compared our relatively small size with the 75 million or so living in Europe at that time and the 290 million or so living in China then.
He said the United States became an economic powerhouse not because Americans were smarter, or harderworking, but because of our representative democracy and capitalist economy.
“We have a system that unleashes potential, and it’s just starting,” he said. “It’s just galloping. And 535 people in Washington can’t screw up 350 million people [working] for their own self-interests.”
The Dow Jones industrial average began the 20th century at about 70 and ended it at 11,497, a period of growth that overcame two world wars, a flu pandemic and a Great Depression, Buffett said. “The country works, and it will work,” he said.
While the economy grows, and stocks tend to rise, over time, Buffett said it’s foolish to try to predict what the market over the short term.
“I never know whether the market’s going to go up, down or sideways the next day, the next week or the next year. I know I like owning stocks, for the rest of my life,” he said.
Recently, his investments have included newspapers, even though they are far smaller than the companies he typically puts money into, such as Heinz, which Berkshire and 3G Capital are buying in a $28 billion deal announced last month.
Buffett, who got his start in business delivering newspapers, said he’ll buy more of the right kind of paper. Berkshire has bought smaller and midsized papers that are the dominant, unifying voice in communities such as Greensboro, N.C.; Richmond, Va.; and Grand Island, Neb.
“We have to be indispensable to a significant part of the community,” Buffett said.
He believes that subscriptions can be part of a smart Internet strategy, because newspapers can’t continue to charge for a print edition while giving away the online version of their product at no charge.
More from Buffett:
Unemployment: “Many businesses, as you know, are doing very well, but there hasn’t been enough demand to really add a lot of capacity in a lot of industries. But as housing comes back, particularly, we’ve got four, five or six housing-related businesses. Brick, insulation, that sort of thing. We’re seeing them coming back. So we are going to be hiring people in our brick business now.”
Washington gridlock: “You’ve got the worst of all negotiating worlds, where people go out and say, ‘I won’t do this, I won’t give an inch on this,’ and the other guy’s saying, ‘I won’t give an inch on something else.’ And so they’ve dug themselves in where they’d be so much better off if they never took these extreme positions in public and just negotiated privately.”
Health care: “I think what hurts the economy is overall medical costs being 17.5 percent of GDP. I’ve said that’s the tapeworm of the American economy. Our costs, compared to the rest of the world, are huge.”
Raising the minimum wage: “I’ve been thinking about it for 50 years. I just don’t know whether it’s a good thing or not, because I don’t know what it does to the guy who’s making the minimum wage now. And I sure … don’t want anything bad to happen to him or her. On the other hand, I think the inequality that exists is awful. If I really thought that was a partial answer to inequality I’d be 100 percent in favor. I’m just not sure about the end result.”
Advice for graduates: “Find the job that you would have if you were already independently rich. And something that turns you on, that you have a passion for. And you may not be able to do that the first time around. You may have to do something just to make a living while you’re looking for that, or finding your passion.”
On buying happiness: “Money’s important, but I have known a lot of very, very rich people – they’re not happy people. … I don’t want 10 cars, you know? It just doesn’t do you that much good.”
GEICO’s Amherst call center: “We have about 10 service centers for GEICO all over the country. … We have a lot of metrics by which we measure the work that takes place in those places. … It makes a huge difference in terms of measuring efficiency, in terms of measuring how people handle the calls that come in, how people respond to them and so on. Buffalo ranks tops in many of them.”
Buying the Bills: “If I were rich and somewhat younger, and lived in Buffalo, I’d buy them in a second. But I’m not taking on new things that my heirs will want to wrestle with. There would have been a time when I would have been very tempted.”