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Warren Buffett may be souring on stocks

March 1, 2013: 4:03 PM ET

The Oracle of Omaha still likes the market -- but he's hardly pounding the table.

chart-stocks-gdp2FORTUNE -- In his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) shareholders, released Friday afternoon, Buffett says he still believes U.S. stocks will "do well." He notes that he made his first stock purchase during the bleakest part of World War II, so even if things look not so great right now, you should end up doing fine as well.

But compare that to last year's letter. Buffett devoted three and a half pages - over 1,900 words - to a detailed explanation of why he thought stocks were a much better investment than say gold or bonds. (See Warren Buffett: Why stocks beat gold and bonds.) He also said he was bullish on U.S. housing.

RELATED: Buffett underperformed the S&P last year

This time around he devotes four paragraphs to the case for stocks. And even in that small space, Buffett says that investors should expect periodic setbacks, and he includes two statistics that could signal one may be coming up sooner rather than later.

Buffett points out that the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose "a staggering" 17,320% in the 20th century -- despite "four costly wars, a Great Depression and numerous recessions." Here's the problem: During nearly the same period, Buffett says GDP per capita rose much less about 500%.

RELATED: Warren Buffett defends his investments in newspapers

Buffett has used this comparison of the economy to stock market valuations before. He featured the metric in a story he wrote for Fortune back in 2001. (See Warren Buffett on the stock market) By that time, stocks had already fallen a bit from their dot-com infused highs. But they still weren't a buy, Buffett said at the time. Despite their fall, stocks collectively were trading at a value of 133% of the gross national product of the U.S. (Buffett used GNP because it goes back 80 years, but for recent history using GDP works just fine.)

So where are stocks trading today? You guessed it. 133% of GDP.

The metric hit a high of 190% back in 1999. So we are a little ways from panic territory, but that doesn't mean the market is a safe place to be right now. Far from it. Back in 2001, Buffett said investors who buy when the relationship of stock values to the economy falls in the 70% to 80% range should do well. That means stocks would have to plummet 43% before we are back in Buffett buy territory.

RELATED: Buffett stays mum on successor

Even so, Buffett doesn't appear to be worried. In his own portfolio, Buffett in the past year has added to his stakes in Wal-Mart (WMT) and Wells Fargo (WFC), two companies that are likely to go up only if the economy and the rest of the market does as well.

It's hard to tell if that's because Buffett believes stocks are cheap, or just because he believes the other investing options are worse. "The risks of being out of the [stock market] game are huge compared to the risks of being in it," writes Buffett in the letter. "Every tomorrow has been uncertain."

 

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About This Author
Stephen Gandel
Stephen Gandel

Stephen Gandel has covered Wall Street and investing for over 15 years. He joins Fortune from sister publication TIME, where he was a senior business writer and lead blogger for The Curious Capitalist. He has also held positions at Money and Crain's New York Business. Stephen is a four-time winner of the Henry R. Luce Award. His work has also been recognized by the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the New York State Society of CPA and the Association of Area Business Publications. He is a graduate of Washington University, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

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