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Warren Buffett's 'Greenback Effect' Warning: A Call to Buy Stocks

Warren Buffett: The Greenback Effect
Warren Buffett: The Greenback Effect

Warren Buffett is back with a new piece in the New York Times, but today he's not using the high-profile platform to explicitly urge us all to buy stocks as he did last October.

But there's still a big "buy" recommendation implicit in the dollar doomsday scenario he lays out in his latest op-ed.

In The Greenback Effect, Buffett details his ongoing warning that the "enormous dosages of monetary medicine" being used to rescue the U.S. economy will eventually produce a dangerous "side effect."

He worries there won't be enough lenders ready and able to absorb the nation's growing debt relative to its economic output over the years, forcing Washington's "printing presses" to work overtime churning out paper money.

All those "greenback emissions" will, he fears, feed potentially "banana-republic" style rates of inflation.

Buffett's warning, however, doesn't come with a policy prescription that has to be filled right away.

He still believes our "immediate problem" is to get the economy "back on its feet and flourishing" and that the nation should continue to do "whatever it takes."

While "the United States economy is now out of the emergency room and appears to be on a slow path to recovery," Buffett argues that "once recovery is gained ... Congress must end the rise in the debt-to-G.D.P. ratio and keep our growth in obligations in line with our growth in resources."

"With government expenditures now running 185 percent of receipts, truly major changes in both taxes and outlays will be required. A revived economy can't come close to bridging that sort of gap.

Buffett recognizes that's a very difficult position for politicians who depend on voters for their jobs.

Since they will "correctly perceive" that raising taxes or cutting spending will hurt their re-election chances, legislators may instead "opt for high rates of inflation, which never require a recorded vote and cannot be attributed to a specific action that any elected official takes."

Buffett, however, believes the "invisible" and "latent" threat of inflation could be "as ominous as that posed by the financial crisis itself."

The world "properly" worries about greenhouse emissions causing global warming, says Buffett. "Unchecked carbon emissions will likely cause icebergs to melt. Unchecked greenback emissions will certainly cause the purchasing power of currency to melt. The dollar's destiny lies with Congress."

It's hard to imagine Washington will have the discipline to properly handle that responsibility, and that brings us back to Buffett's previous op-ed in the Times last October.

What should an investor do in tough economic times with inflation on the horizon? Buffett's recommendation then was to buy stocks rather than try to play it safe with cash:

"People who hold cash equivalents feel comfortable. They shouldn’t. They have opted for a terrible long-term asset, one that pays virtually nothing and is certain to depreciate in value. Indeed, the policies that government will follow in its efforts to alleviate the current crisis will probably prove inflationary and therefore accelerate declines in the real value of cash accounts."

He repeated that advice late last month, when he told CNBC viewers that with "real inflationary possibilities" down the road, he "would much rather own equities at 9000 on the Dow than have a long investment in government bonds or a continuously rolling investment in short-term money."

So, while Buffett doesn't explicitly use today's Times piece to repeat his advice to buy stocks, that remains the implicit recommendation given his argument that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for Washington to summon the "extraordinary political will" to hold off serious long-term inflation.

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