Most Powerful Women

Transcript: Warren Buffett at Fortune MPW

October 16, 2013: 9:55 PM ET

Fortune's Carol Loomis joined her old friend Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, on stage at Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit.

 

An unedited transcript follows:

CAROL LOOMIS:  Good morning, all.  At some point we will not break into song.  I'm not quite up to Gwen's level.  But this is an anniversary for us, Warren.  It's the fifth anniversary of your first appearing here.  The first time that he was here in 2008 was an electric moment.  It was early October.  Lehman had failed two weeks before.  AIG had been taken over by the government.  The TARP bill had not been passed.  It was going to be passed before the MPW was over, but it had not been passed that morning.  And things were not looking good.

So I did have one preliminary comment to make to Warren, and I'll come back to that a little bit later, but I then turned to him and said, okay, how bad is it out there?  And he said ‑‑ I went back and looked at the video, and he said:  It's bad.  It's like nothing I've ever seen.  It's an economic Pearl Harbor in which creditworthy companies cannot get financing.  We will pull out of it, but it's going to take time.

So we would say looking back that that was a sound assessment, and we will come back to the recovery.  Even so, here we are five years later once again in the middle of financial trouble.  And I would like to ask you, and I would like to say once more, Warren, how bad is it out there?

WARREN BUFFETT:  Well, it's not so bad in the economy.  It's bad for a great many of our citizens.  Overall, though, the economy has done very well.  It's been a slow recovery, but it was an extreme wound that the economy had received, like none in my lifetime.  So it's not totally surprising that it's taken us a while to come back.

But ever since the fall of 2009, the recovery has come back steadily.  It hasn't accelerated, but it hasn't flattened out either.  And that's the way it is now, and even 2 percent a year growth, if the population grows 1 percent, that means in a generation people are living on average 20 percent better than the generation before.  That is not bad.  It would be better if it's 3 percent.  But we have a wonderful economy.  And you've seen it heal faster than the other major economies around the world.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Let's come back to that in just a second.  Let's talk about the debt ceiling problem.  And let me ask that question again, how bad is that?

WARREN BUFFETT:  Well, if it really ‑‑ if it goes on a few days and we really don't get it resolved, then it's actually terrible.  I've told my children that it takes 20 years to build a reputation and it takes 20 minutes to ruin it.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Five minutes.

WARREN BUFFETT:  Pardon me?

CAROL LOOMIS:  Five minutes.

WARREN BUFFETT:  Well, particularly some of my kids.  But we have spent 237 years since 1776 building a reputation as the most wonderful country on earth, and one that's entrusted with having the reserve currency of the world, the one who when they say full faith and credit nobody questions it.  And that could ‑‑ that is being put in jeopardy now, and it could be destroyed in a little while.  And a great reputation, as I say, is like virginity, it can be preserved, but it can't be restored.  (Laughter.)  At least that's what my dad told me.  (Laughter.)

So it is absolute folly to even think about it.  And it will be ‑‑ I don't know what the words are to describe it if we actually would default.  I can't believe it will be done because it just is so stupid.  And I think the whole idea of a debt limit is a terrible, terrible mistake.  I mean, if you're going to spend more than you take in, what are you going to do except raise the debt limit.

So it becomes this political weapon of mass destruction.  It really is like a nuclear bomb.  It's something maybe you can talk about, but you can't even dream of using it.  We dropped two atom bombs in 1945.  We've never done it since.  Now, we've been frustrated by all kinds of ‑‑ we had a war in Vietnam that we did not get a satisfactory resolution to, and we've had other wars, but we didn't think about we were going to drop nuclear bombs.  There are certain things that just should not be used in a civilization.  And the idea of breaking the government's promises to achieve any other end, whether it's gun control, abortion, Obamacare, whatever it is, tying it to that is madness.  You can argue those other things out, but get the debt ceiling out of the picture.

CAROL LOOMIS:  And here we are, two days away from the actual moment at which we do not raise it or do raise it.  And do you have a kind of scenario in mind as to how we will get from here to actually solving this problem?

WARREN BUFFETT:  I think the way to solve it is just to say, the debt ceiling ‑‑ both parties to say the debt ceiling will never be used as a weapon of mass destruction.  It's off the table.  We'll argue about all kinds of other things, and see how they come out, but we are not going to threaten the world and our own citizens with the fact that we aren't going to make good on our promises to achieve some other end.  It doesn't make any sense.

CAROL LOOMIS:  And seeing the political climate in Washington, can you imagine that happening in the next couple of days?

WARREN BUFFETT:  I can't imagine the full thing playing out that way, although I wish it would.  But maybe this has been the demonstration project we needed.  We didn't know exactly what atomic weapons could do until we did them, and then it was an important ‑‑ it was an incredible goal, obviously, at the time.  But we decided we didn't want to do that again no matter how serious things got.  And I hope that comes out of it.

But I think that basically you really need the House Republicans to say, this is a weapon we shouldn't have used, and we think Obamacare is terrible, and we'll fight it out, and we'll beat you in 2014 in the elections and prove it and so on.  But we will not say that the United States is going to break its promises to millions and millions citizens and other countries and everything just because we're not getting our way.

CAROL LOOMIS:  And how about the prospect that it will just be pushed forward to the end of January or something?

WARREN BUFFETT:  That seems to be our specialty.  I mean, we've gotten good at that.  We don't know how to solve problems, but we sure know how to postpone them.  That may be what happens.  I'll be disappointed if it does.

CAROL LOOMIS:  I think all of us will just hate to go through this.

WARREN BUFFETT:  It's ridiculous, and why do it?  If you have a problem, you face it, and the debt ceiling is a problem that we can get rid of it being a problem.  Then we'll have a lot of other problems, and we can fight those out on their own turf.  But to just push it down the road, I mean, the people go through Christmas wondering how is all this going to come out.  And they appoint the super committee, which turns out to be a mini committee, and all kinds of things.  It just doesn't make any sense.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Considering the confusion we are in, has this affected your decisions about running Berkshire in any way?

WARREN BUFFETT:  Not one iota.  We announced an acquisition this morning, it was over in England, so it was at 3:00 a.m., I think, for a purchase for a $1.1 billion.  It didn't affect a dollar of the price that we put it.  We did not put in a clause that said, if Congress does this or that, then this, because the deal hasn't closed for a while, that the deal will be off or anything like that.  It doesn't affect anything.  This country is going to do well over time.  I want to participate in it.  I'll participate through owning good businesses, and if we get a chance to buy a good business, we buy it.  And I will say this, Charlie Munger, my partner, and I have worked together now for 54 years.  We've made a lot of decisions on buying businesses, we've made a lot of decisions on buying stocks.  In the conversations that accompanied those decisions, neither one of us has ever once brought up anything of a macro nature, proving that it just doesn't make any difference.

I don't know what's going to happen next week, or next month, or next year.  I know what's going to happen over 10 or 20 years.  And why concern myself with the things I can't know and don't understand when the important things are something I think I do understand.

CAROL LOOMIS:  And what would you say to this audience, many of them who are making decisions, real-time decisions, about what to do, how would you extend ‑‑

WARREN BUFFETT:  Full speed ahead.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Okay.  All right.  I think we've got that message.  I really didn't expect you say anything ‑‑

WARREN BUFFETT:  I bought my first stock in April of 1942.  After Pearl Harbor, we had nothing but bad news for six months.  The headlines every day were that we were having trouble with the Corregidor Bataan, you name it.  And the Dow was at about 100, and the news was terrible.  But I and practically every American I knew thought we were going to win the war, and the stock I bought was cheap.  It got quite a bit cheaper in the next few months.  But I've been buying stocks ever since.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Right.  And always being glad in a way that it got cheaper because you can buy at a cheaper price.

WARREN BUFFETT:  I love a sale.  Just try me out, mark down the price of Fortune and I'll extend my subscription for 20 years.  (Laughter.)

CAROL LOOMIS:  And the recovery, just to dwell on that a second, do you see it at this moment slowing any, or do you see it just going along at this steady upward pace?

WARREN BUFFETT:  I can't tell you about the last week, but I can tell you about the last month.  I get figures on 70-plus companies in pretty much real-time.  And the recovery ever since the fall of 2009 has been going up at a modest rate.  And people talk about double dips, there wasn't going to be any double dip.  They talk about acceleration, there hasn't been real acceleration.

The line of ascent is just about like it's been now for five years almost, well four and a fraction years.  We will, we project that our railroad, in the week of November 5th, I believe, will hit or maybe slightly exceed the car loading peak reached before Lehman.  But it's taken four or five years to get there.

We're seeing, we own the second largest real estate brokerage firm in the country.  And so I get what they call pending transactions even before they complete.  And I get the median prices at which the deals are being made.  And I get them from a lot of markets all over the country.  And I just got them for September, and the median price is up, and the pendings are up.  And the country is coming back.  You can't stop the United States.  We get through everything.  We got through a Civil War.  We got through the Great Depression.  We got through World Wars.  The country works.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Why is it that at every perilous moment that people start to say, this is the time that it's really not going to?

WARREN BUFFETT:  Well, they get scared.  The humans, 500 years from now, people will panic periodically.  Fear is incredibly contagious.  When people got worried about their money market funds in September of 2008, you had 30 million Americans with $3-1/2 trillion, half of all the amount of bank deposits and money market funds.  A week earlier none of them were worried, and within a couple of days everyone who had a money market fund was worried.  And that was something they didn't expect to be worried about, and they looked at their neighbor and they were worried.  And at that time, in three days, 5 percent of all the money market ‑‑ I mean, there was a run on money market funds like you can't believe.  And I give great credit to the government for taking the actions that they did.

So fear spreads instantaneously.  Confidence comes back through the door one at a time.  People do not ‑‑ there's not such a thing as mass resumption of confidence, but fear just takes over.  And that will happen again.

CAROL LOOMIS:  And what is your rule about investing?

WARREN BUFFETT:  Well, you want to be greedy when others are fearful, and fearful when others are greedy.  And I've got plenty of greed, so I'm just waiting or the fearful part.

CAROL LOOMIS:  And just because I shouldn't skip this real life fact, what company did you buy, announced buying today?

WARREN BUFFETT:  Well, we bought a company from another company in England, and it's called Cornelius.  And it makes equipment which dispenses and cools wonderful beverages like Coca-Cola.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Which you hope they will ‑‑

WARREN BUFFETT:  Well, we made them put little dispensers.  We've got a dispenser in the office, but we'll now have an improved one.

CAROL LOOMIS:  And this goes into what company within Berkshire?

WARREN BUFFETT:  This goes into Marmon.  Marmon itself owns probably 130 companies.  It's a huge conglomerate itself.  We bought it from the Pritzker family.  We're just completing the purchase of 100 percent.  And it's an important business for Berkshire.  We have five, what I call the powerhouse five, and those five will ‑‑ Marmon is one of them ‑‑ in aggregate they'll earn well over $10 billion pre-tax this year.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Good.

WARREN BUFFETT:  Yes, I think so.  (Laughter.)  The more the better.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Now I'm going to switch the subject to women.  I said that five years ago before I got into the matter of how bad it was in that crisis, I had made one point to the audience, and I never had any reason to change it.  And that point was that among all the business executives I knew, and I have known an awful lot over the years, that Warren is the most unbiased about gender and ethnicity of any of them that I've ever seen.  He just simply has no bias about gender.  He does have a bias, a strong one, about competence, intelligence, and character.  But those three things are the only ones that he thinks about, and he simply thinks about and no others.

Now, having said that, repeated that very good thing about him, I'm about to turn into a tough reporter.

WARREN BUFFETT:  Okay, here we go.  But ‑‑

CAROL LOOMIS:  Okay.  The point is, and this is what I want to bring up, and first, before I do bring it up, Warren wrote an article for Fortune that ran this spring called "Warren Buffett is bullish ... on Women."  And if any of you missed it, you must go back and get it.  As a matter of fact, you can even get it in my book called Tap Dancing To Work, which we are just putting out in the paperback version.  And I had an opportunity there writing an introduction for this article to editorialize a little bit.  And so here's what that introduction says.  It says that despite these strong feelings you have about the competence of women and their ability to completely support and build the economy that you were very slow in getting on the policy train of putting women on your board.

WARREN BUFFETT:  Right.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Yes.

WARREN BUFFETT:  Actually, I didn't want to put anybody on the board.  (Laughter.)

CAROL LOOMIS:  That is true.  But when you looked around, you didn't exactly jump to put women on the board.  And the first woman, Charlotte Guyman who is here, she went on, and I meant to look up the date and now I've forgotten what it was, 2008?

WARREN BUFFETT:  It would be, ten to twelve years ago, something like that.

CAROL LOOMIS:  It's quite a while ago.  And then Sue Decker went on.

WARREN BUFFETT:  A majority of the people in the last ten years have been women.

CAROL LOOMIS:  That's very true.  And Meryl Witman went on.  So there are three out of board that has how many?

WARREN BUFFETT:  Twelve.

CAROL LOOMIS:  And why do you think ‑‑

WARREN BUFFETT:  But there are five over 80, and they're all men.  So believe me, you've got demographics working for you.  (Laughter.)

CAROL LOOMIS:  So why do you think that you were a little bit slow in doing this?

WARREN BUFFETT:  Well, to be perfectly honest, who knows exactly.  I will tell you why, I really didn't ‑‑ we didn't want to put anybody on the board until the rules started coming in about having independent directors, and all that.  I mean, the board was not a big deal at Berkshire at all.  I have a friend that used to like to own 100 percent of any company that he had, because he liked to look in the mirror and say "all my shareholders love me."  (Laughter.)  That has a nice ring to it.  I like to look in the mirror and say "enough of my shareholders love me," and for a long time it was treated almost as a private business.  Berkshire Hathaway came out of a partnership I ran, which I ran all by myself.  I was the only general partner.  So it sort of had that history.

So Charlie and I, we had a board because we were required to have a board, but the board did not do much in the past.  And then certain legal requirements got added over time.  And, frankly, I love the idea that of the directors that are 60 and under, half of them are women now, and there will be more.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Okay.  That sounds like a good answer.

WARREN BUFFETT:  I'm on tape here.  You can sue me later on.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Okay.  Now I'm going to turn to questions from the audience.  If they are not crystal clear, I may, for both the audience's benefit and Warren's because he goes to the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting, and the first thing he always says, point to Charlie Munger who is sitting by him, he said, Charlie can't see, and I can't hear.

WARREN BUFFETT:  That's why we work together.  I can't remember his name anymore, and he can't remember mine, but we need each other.

CAROL LOOMIS:  I'm going to be looking for questions.  It's always difficult up here to see.

WARREN BUFFETT:  Yes, you can't see much.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Who has their hand up, who has a mike in their hand?  Point me where I should be pointing.  Over there.  How about back there, okay.

QUESTION:  Hi, a general question about your thoughts.  You said you brought your first stock in 1942.  I think right around that time, sometime after World War II, I think prior to that the sterling was the world currency.  Then it switched to the U.S. dollar not too long after that.  At the time any other country, very similar to markets today, you have to be able to cover your debt, you have to be able to have enough in order to borrow against at that time the sterling.  And now we're looking at a situation with the amount of debt ceiling, I think what's different between now and ever before is there is the risk of the devaluation or the issue of the U.S. dollar not being the world currency.  What's your view?  Do you see that happening, because there's an awful lot of fear and discussion about it now?

WARREN BUFFETT:  Yes, unless we do something incredibly foolish, and I don't think we will, the dollar will be the world's currency for a long, long, long, long time.  We came out of World War II actually with a higher debt to GDP than we have now.  And all of our debt is printed in our own currency.  I mean that's the key.  Then the question is do you abuse that in some way so that the currency declines in value at a rapid rate.  Well, interestingly enough, I was born in 1930.  The dollar from 1930 is worth about six cents today.

So I've lived during a period where the dollar has lost 94 percent of its value in terms of purchasing power.  And yet at the same time in real terms the GDP of the country per capita has gone up six for one.  Six for one just think of that.  One person's lifetime, we went centuries in the world where the gains were nothing in a century, or a few percent.  And six for one in one person's lifetime, at the same time our currency has decreased by ‑‑ well it went from $1 to 6 cents, 94 percent.  And despite all of that, we are the world's reserve currency and people are willing to lend us money for nothing, virtually, currently in large sums.  And I do not see that changing unless we do something incredibly foolish.

Now we have to stabilize the debt as a percentage of GDP, which means we can have debt increase by 2 to 3 percent a year if GDP grows 2 to 3 percent a year.  And I think that's a very realistic possibility.  We can't keep having debt grow at a faster rate than GDP, although it can go on for a long time, and it has gone on for a long time.

Our country, the people who think it's falling apart, that's not remotely the case.  I was just on a program this morning with Sarah Blakely and Fred Smith.  I mean here are two people that took something very common, the postal service and airplanes or something, and they saw needs and they filled them.  And they're thinking of new things to do tomorrow.  I mean the secret sauce in America is basically the people in this room and the fact that you're all trying to make your life better tomorrow, and you'll come up with ways to do it.  So the country works.  It may get gummed up somewhat by Washington sometimes, but it won't get ruined.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Another question, and I should have mentioned this before, would you state who you are before asking the question.  Where are we?  It's so hard to see.

QUESTION:  I have one here.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Okay.

QUESTION:  Mary Erdoes, JP Morgan Asset Management, right over on your right.

WARREN BUFFETT:  All right.

QUESTION:  Here we are.  Good morning.  So as we went through the introductions this morning there were a whole host of women who were taking about either taking their companies public and actually a few of them taking their companies private.  And I thought if we could just hear from you on your thoughts on the pros and cons of the public versus private company.

WARREN BUFFETT:  Carol and I belong to a group that started in 1968 called the Graham Group.  We meet and one time we had a session with two enormously successful people on the panel.  I assigned the topic and one of them said he'd give up half his net worth to be private again.  And the other one gave exactly the reverse answer.  I started out feeling like I wanted to be private.  I had run a private partnership and I just enjoyed it that way.  I like looking in the mirror and making decisions and not getting any negative votes.  And it was a lot of fun.

When we distributed a bunch of Berkshire shares, as part of winding up the partnership and it already was a public company, it became more public then and over time I found it actually more fun to run a public company.  But, it's become a podium.  It's where I can play out my ideas and explain why I do things and have a lot of fun.  And Carol edits my letter to make it more readable.  And it's a teaching mechanism, even.

I would say generally speaking that when people come to me with wonderful businesses, and they do, and they talk about selling them to me, my first advice is don't sell them.  I mean wonderful businesses they're too rare.  And if you've got one in your family, keep it unless something forces you to sell it.  So I would say stay private unless you have a need to go public, in terms of financing, or in terms of solving the problems of ownership within a family that's going in different directions or something.

But, you can always go public and unless there's a compelling reason to do it, which is usually fund raising, I don't see the reason to do it.  And going private, you can do it, but that creates a lot more problems.  Now you're faced with buying out your partners unilaterally, and Michael Dell just went through that.  That's not something I would want to do.  So I would stay private and then if you really get the urge to cash in I've got an 800 number.

CAROL LOOMIS:  And just to interrupt here with a question, how about the flurry of activists that we see out there these days?  What message would you have for people trying to deal with them?

WARREN BUFFETT:  I believe basically that I'm running Berkshire for the people that are going to stay in and not the ones who want to get out.  I mean you try to have a decent market and everything for people that want to get out, but basically I'm concerned with the people who want to stay in.  And of course most of the activists want to rattle the cage and get management to do something that will give a spurt to the stock, which may not be in the long-term interest of the company.

So I've seen plenty of cases where managements are doing things where they deserve a little shaking up.  But, I do think that the more in running a business, we don't make quarterly estimates ever.  I don't care what the company earns this quarter.  I really care about what we're going to be 5 or 10 years from now.  And it doesn't make any difference if I ship a lot of stuff in the last day of the quarter and get some extra few pennies a share earned or something.  I don't want to be thinking that way.  I don't want our managers thinking that way.  And I don't want stockholders who expect me to think that way.

So if an activist comes along to Berkshire and says we think you ought to do this and that I'll say fine, start your own company and you do it.

CAROL LOOMIS:  So I think we can add that you have a bias against activists.

WARREN BUFFETT:  Somewhat.  There are plenty of managements that deserve some shaking up, too.  I don't want to come down and say that activists are all bad.  But, overwhelmingly I do not believe in running a company to respond to people who want to sell their stock in the next few months.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Right.

Question?

QUESTION:  Hi, I'm Melody Hopson.  I want to do a follow-up question to the first question about the currency issue.  A lot of that is coming from rhetoric from China that the global economy should be de-Americanized and internationalized is the word that is being used.  And I was in China last week where a Chinese official called this the century of the Pacific, that the last century was the century of the Atlantic, which was the U.S. and Western Europe, and this century is the century of the Pacific.  I wonder what you think about China, their growing influence, them being our largest debt holder, et cetera, and what the long-term prospects are for the emerging markets.

WARREN BUFFETT:  Your friend sounds to me more like an ad man than an economist.  But, China is going to be enormously important.  And they should be.  I mean it will be an economic powerhouse, but so will the United States be.  And what is important is that the two countries largely learn to live together.  We are going to both be super powers and we've got a lot of common interests and we've got some things we differ on.  And that will always be the case.  But, the thing to remember is overwhelmingly we should figure out how to get along.

But the United States will be the super power of the world for a very, very, very long time.  China will be gaining in importance for a very, very, very long time.  But they start from a lower base.  They also have a whole lot more people.  So that in sum pointing to the aggregate, they're going to catch us in GDP.  In terms of GDP per capita, I wouldn't want to bet on that one.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Well, and their political systems, what would you say about that, assuming ours is working correctly?

WARREN BUFFETT:  It's hard for me to figure out what's happening in this country.  But the interesting thing is in 1790 we had a little under four million people; China had 300 million people.  They had similar resources.  They had similar climate.  They worked just as hard.  They were just as smart.  And in the next 200 years we got so we had 25 percent of the world's GDP, starting with these four million people; and they didn't really go any place.

And then in the last 40 or 50 years, they have just galloped forward.  And so they are starting to unleash human potential in China the same way we've been unleashing human potential since 1776.  And I'm all for that.  We should much prefer to have a prosperous China than a China that has problems.  If you postulate two worlds, one in which we're an island of prosperity, 315 million, and the rest of the world is sitting there envious; or postulate something where the rest of the world is growing even faster than we are, but we're also benefiting, just choose which world you want.  And then think about which world you want if the other guy has some nuclear weapons and happens to be envious of thee.  I mean, it is in our interest that the rest of the world does well, and in particular China.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Question?  Right there, okay.

QUESTION:  Barbara Novick with Blackrock.  First of all, I love your enthusiasm, and your optimism.  Have you given any thought to retirement planning and the longevity problem?  Not for yourself, but facing the country?  And what should we as a society be doing to help people who are clearly going to live a lot longer?

WARREN BUFFETT:  I'm 83 and I'm having more fun than I've ever had in my life.  So the main thing to do is to be involved with something you love.  I tell the students that, and something ‑‑ I tell them to take the job you'd take if you were already independently rich.  Well, that's what I've got.

We are going to have a problem in this country ‑‑ we're not going to have a problem in terms of turning out more and more stuff.  The market system works marvelously in turning out things people want.  It's the marvel of the world.  And it will continue to be.  Look at just what Apple has done in recent years.  The market system works on turning out stuff.

The more specialized it becomes, the more people it will leave behind in terms of getting the bounty of that, unfortunately, and frankly that's where government has to come in.  We have gone in 1982, the Forbes 400 ‑‑ I apologize for using the term here ‑‑ but the Forbes 400 had $90 billion of net worth.  They had $2,020,000,000,000 this year, over 20 times as much, an all time record.  The people in this room overwhelmingly are doing better than they were five years ago.  The people who will serve us lunch later on are not.  And the trickle down has not worked very well.  It's still better than being an economy that doesn't go any place.

But we have solved the problem of more and more goods.  We have not solved the problem of having a country with $50,000 of GDP per person, and having 20 percent of the families, 25 million families, 60 million people living in households with $21,000 of income or less.  And that's our challenge.  And that gets into the problem of the aging, and all of that.

People in their working years have to take care not only of the old to some extent, but of course they take are o the young.  And they sort of tie it with the old to what they produced over their life.  They don't tie that way in the young.  If you have ten children, you still get school places for each one of them, and all of that.  So that will be the challenge.

I think we'll be up to that challenge, and we've certainly got the ingredients to be up to that challenge.  We are wealthy.  We are a wealthy family.  A number of the members of the family aren't really sharing in that the way I would hope they would.

CAROL LOOMIS:  And you, of course, have spoken out quite loudly about this problem, and your viewpoint about what should be done about taxes.

WARREN BUFFETT:  Yes.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Any change in what you think about that?

WARREN BUFFETT:  No.  No.  I hesitate bringing it up, but even last year my tax rate counting payroll taxes was the lowest in the office of 25 people, and I have no tax shelters.  I just thank you lobbyists.  They've taken care of me.

I've filed a tax return every year since I was 13.  And we took the years by decades and compared taxes to taxable income.  And the last decade, and believe me it's been my best decade, has been just about the lowest of any decade in terms of my tax rate.  It was tougher when I was selling shirts are Penney's.

CAROL LOOMIS:  And a big part of this problem is that people never stop to think about the employment taxes.

WARREN BUFFETT:  The payroll tax is $900 billion.  It's 30 percent of our total government expenditures, very roughly.  And it quits at $105,000, or something like that.  So it's regressive, basically.  My payroll tax as a percentage of my total income is zilch.  The payroll tax of most of the people in the office as a percentage is now again 15 plus percent.  And if they've got spouses working, you can have a household of $200,000 of income, and they've got 15 percent payroll taxes right off the bat.

It's gotten pretty extreme.  If you look at the distribution of taxes since World War II, the payroll tax has just consistently gone up as a percentage of the total revenues of the government.  And corporate income taxes have gone down dramatically.  Corporate income taxes used to be 4 percent of GDP, they're now 1-1/2 percent of GDP.  Corporate profits are at an all-time record.  But we hear all the lobbyists for the corporations telling us how we're not competitive with the rest of the world, and everything, which is a lot of baloney

CAROL LOOMIS:  So there.

WARREN BUFFETT:  Put me down as undecided.

CAROL LOOMIS:  Another question right here.

QUESTION:  Hi, Alexandra Lebenthal, Lebenthal and Company.  You entered the municipal bond insurance business at an interesting time, and I think subsequently had some second thoughts about it.  And I would love to know your feelings on that industry now, especially given where certain cities and commonwealths are.

WARREN BUFFETT:  We did start guaranteeing municipals five years ago or so.  AT the time we were getting premiums of probably over 3 percent, averaging over 3 percent, sometimes 4 or 5 percent.  And in almost all cases, we had other municipal bond insurers that came ahead of us.  So we were second to pay, third to pay, fourth to pay sometimes, and getting this pretty fat rate.  And then the rates went down dramatically, and for the same risk within a year or two we would have probably only been getting a quarter of the premium.  And insurance is attractive at one price, and it's not attractive at another price.  So when rates leave us, we leave the business, basically, and that's what we did.  If rates were high enough, or appropriate in our view as to the risk involved, we would ensure municipals again.  I mean, we're selective about it.  But we just weren't getting paid enough.

QUESTION:  Can I say one thing, I have the mike on, for the sake of the Buffett family, for Susie, for other friends of Warren, Buffett is B-u-f-f-e-t-t.  So if you're tweeting, Warren is verified, so I just wanted to say that.  Thank you.

WARREN BUFFETT:  Unless you're saying anything bad, in which case spell it any damned way you please.

CAROL LOOMIS:  And I have a history, as you well know, of the first time I ever mentioned the name Buffett in Fortune in 1966 I misspelled it.

WARREN BUFFETT:  I forgive you.

CAROL LOOMIS:  All right, I'm over it.  Okay.  Over here.

QUESTION:  Warren, I'm glad you ‑‑

CAROL LOOMIS:  Who are you?

QUESTION:  I'm sorry Janice Ellig, with Chadick Ellig, an executive search firm.  We have such a wealth of talent in this room, and I'm really glad that you're bullish on women.  But don't you think we have a corporate governance issue in corporate America?

You know, there are so many studies about if you have more women in the C suite and more women in the boardroom you have higher performance.  Credit Suisse Research Institute in surveying 2,400 companies globally proved that.  And so did McKinsey in other research that's been done.  But, we have nearly 40 percent of the Fortune 500 have zero or one women in the boardroom.  So how are we going to get this moving in the boardrooms with more women in the C suite?  I know you're a big proponent, but how is this going to happen?

WARREN BUFFETT:  I do like Berkshire as a teaching mechanism.  And we'll show that to some extent and have been at Berkshire.  But listen, people in power don't give it up easily.  That's true in religion.  It's true in the military.  It's true every place.  And to some extent it just doesn't surface much and that's one of the reasons I wrote the article and I addressed it specifically to men at the end.  I think, I said it in the article; it makes me very bullish on America.  When I think of how far this country came using half of its talent, I mean just think of what the potential is using all of its talent.  And we did just use half of the talent for a long time.  I mean even the 19th Amendment didn't affect change that fast.  My sisters were born a couple of years each side of me in 1930.  And they are absolutely as smart as I am and more personable and they did not have the same chances.  It wasn't ‑‑ my parents loved them equally, the teachers sort of felt they were all entitled to the same chance, but it was just 1,000 different ways they were told that their job was to marry well, or maybe get a job as a secretary, or a nurse, and all of that talent went to waste.  And I was lucky, because I was only competing against half of the country.  And I don't think it should stay that way.  And it's moved a fair distance but it's got a long way to go, too.  I don't know about in Europe there's been some legislation of percentages of women directors.  I don't know whether that's the best way to go or not, but I think Berkshire is going to prove that a lot of women, talented women can accomplish a whole lot for the shareholders.

CAROL LOOMIS:  And talk just for a moment about the point you've made that education and you and I benefited personally from the fact that women had so few careers open to us when you and I were growing up.

WARREN BUFFETT:  I went to public school in the mid to late '30s, in grammar school, and I had nothing but women teachers, and they were terrific.  And of course, they should have been terrific, because half of the talent of the country was being compressed into these few occupations, teachers, nurses, secretaries, and retail clerks.  And if you forced all of the men to become accountants you would have had one hell of a group of accountants.  But, you would have wasted all kinds of talent.

I mean the idea of setting limits as to what talented people can do is just crazy.  And that was being done in the '30s and it benefited me, because I would not have ‑‑ those same teachers would have had jobs that paid better, many of them would have had jobs that paid better and society would have been better off.  But, in terms of my own personal equation I got the benefit of the fact that wonderfully talented people were just being pushed into the slot that said teacher.

CAROL LOOMIS:  We have time for one more quick question, right here.

QUESTION:  Hi, Elizabeth Gore, resident entrepreneur at the United Nations Foundation.  We admire so much your legacy and philanthropy and your children's philanthropy.  I'd love to just hear your philosophy around that.

WARREN BUFFETT:  Well, my friend Charlie gave away some money the other day; he said it won't do me much good where I'm going.  So I've got everything in life I want.  And it uses a very tiny percentage of my resources.  So I have some stock certificates that I bought 40 or 50 years ago down in a safe deposit box and they have no utility to me.  They can't buy anything for me that I need or want.  I can go down and fondle them occasionally or something of the sort.  But, other than that they're just pieces of paper.

They have enormous utility for other people, particularly if used wisely.  They have no utility for me.  So why in the world should I sit there and let them sit in a box and I have never given away a penny that has affected my life in any way, shape, or form.  There's people that this Sunday will drop $5 into a collection plate and it makes the difference between whether they go out for dinner or something, or go to a movie.  I've never done any of that.  But, if you have this incredible surplus and in our Giving Pledge we call these ‑‑ we only call on people with $1 billion, and I'm only asking them for half.  So I say to them when they turn me down I say, you know, I'm going to write a book on how to live on $500 million, because there's apparently a big need for this.  (Laughter, applause.)

I found I can live on $500 million and a lot less.  So all the rest is surplus and why not do it.  If it can provide vaccines, or education, or whatever it may be, or a better life for women, I mean why not use it?

CAROL LOOMIS:  I think we're at the end of this and I hope you'll join with me in thanking Warren for having been here.  (Cheers, applause.)

WARREN BUFFETT:  Thank you.

END

Join the Conversation
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.