CNBC TRANSCRIPT: Warren Buffett & Bill Gates - Keeping America Great
This is the unofficial transcript of the CNBC Town Hall event Warren Buffett and Bill Gates: Keeping America Great, taped Thursday, November 12, 2009 at Columbia University in New York City.
It was prepared for CNBC by Realtime Transcription Inc.
The transcript is alsoavailable for downloading as an Adobe Acrobat PDF document.
ANNOUNCER: The embodiment of the American dream, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, self-made billionaires whose values run as deep as their wealth. One redefined an industry, the other the modern investor. But both put their stock in America, and by investing in business and humanity, reaped the rewards of this great country's capitalist tradition. Today that tradition is under siege, our way of life questioned. And with America at an inflection point, a future generation looks for guidance from the world's two greatest capitalists. Now, they are going back to school, not to learn, but to teach. Showing the next generation of business leaders that wealth is not about the money you amass, but the number of lives you enrich. Tonight in a CNBC town hall event, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates share their secrets to keeping America great.
BECKY QUICK: A special CNBC town hall. I am Becky Quick at Columbia Business School at Columbia University. Let's hear it, guys. [CHEERS AND APPLAUSE] We are in the heart of New York City. This is the world's center of capitalism and this is the place where dreams really do come true. In fact, right now, look at all these people here today. We could be surrounded -- [CHEERS AND APPLAUSE] -- We could be surrounded by the next Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. How about you? You ready to go?
STUDENT: We are so excited to all be here today. You wouldn't believe how much tickets are being sold for out front.
BECKY: I know you're not telling the truth. You had to get in with your I.D., right?
STUDENT: Yes, this is true.
BECKY: We're ready to go tonight. Tonight it is all about Keeping America Great. [CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]
No people have done that better than Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Folks, let's please welcome Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. [CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]
I see Warren is trying to work the home crowd here with Columbia. [CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]
Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us tonight. This has been, as you know, an extraordinary year. This is a year where the rules have been completely rewritten, where we have thrown out the rule books, and we have seen icons collapse. This is also a time when a lot of people have probably wondered about our way of life. People in this very room. That's going to be our focus in just a minute. Gentlemen, before we get to that, the two of you may seem like an odd pair. For anybody who doesn't know you two well --
BUFFETT: You'll think more odd when we get through. [LAUGHTER]
BECKY: What brings you two together tonight? Why you two and why here with these business students here at Columbia?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, we enjoy working together. Actually, when I left Columbia, they told me I would probably have to come back and repeat a few classes. So here I am.
BECKY: Bill, what about you? You are ready to go with the students?
BILL GATES: Yeah, it will be a lot of fun. Warren and I love getting the questions and talking about our optimism. [APPLAUSE]
BECKY: The reason you two are here tonight is this is a pivotal moment in history. People have questions about the economy, about our entire system of capitalism. And, gentlemen, let me ask each of you, over the course of the last year, was there ever a time that you had doubts about capitalism and about our way of life?
BUFFETT: No, there was not a time. If there had been, last September when we invested a lot of money, that was when the country was looking into the abyss. The money was flowing out of money market funds. The commercial paper market died and everything. We put $8 billion to work in just a matter of a few days then. So I never lost confidence in the system. This country works, you know. We've got 200 years of proof. And it's going to continue to work. [APPLAUSE]
BECKY: Bill, what do you think, Bill?
GATES: Well, we have a complex financial system which we have proven that we can make mistakes. But more fundamental than that is the innovation, the fact that you can create new companies, that people are willing to take risk and invest, that there's great science going on. This country still has the best universities, the best science, and we're going to tune our system of capitalism, you know. The idea that you have a lot of short-term loans covering long-term needs, the amount of leverage that was there, there are definitely some lessons. But the fundamentals of the system, a marketplace-driven system where we invest in education and a great infrastructure for the long-term, that's continued. And, you know, I'll bet there are some inventions that took place in that fall in the darkest hour: People were working on new drugs, new chips, new robots and things to make life better for everyone in the decades ahead. [APPLAUSE]
BECKY: All right. Tonight is all about the students and why don't we start out and get right to it. Why don't you start out. You ready to go?
QUESTION: We are honored to have you here at the university. [APPLAUSE] My question for you is directed to both of you, Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffett. I'd like to know your perspective on whether greed and immoral behavior, unethical behavior, were key causes of the recent financial crisis.
BUFFETT: You went out toward the end, Becky.
BECKY: Just wondering whether greed and corruption were behind what happened.
BUFFETT: It certainly played a part. We have always had greed. That didn't get invented in the last few years. And greed, fear in the third quarter -- I mean, the American people were really panicked there for a while. And it affected their -- it started out on Wall Street but then spilled over into the general economy subsequently. But we're never going to get rid of greed. We're never going to get rid of fear. What we do have is a system, as Bill said, a market system where we have the quality of opportunity and the rule of law combined to unleash human potential in this country over the last couple of hundred years to the degree nobody would have believed possible a few centuries before that. There's nothing that's gone wrong with that system. Our economy was sputtering and still is sputtering some. But we've got the greatest engine ever devised. And it's just beginning. Greed will continue. Don't worry about that. Oliver Stone is putting out a second film here pretty soon. Probably get mentioned again in this one with Gordon Gekko making a return. But that is not what drives the American system. What drives the American system is the quality of opportunity in a market system and the knowledge that when you get out of here, you're going to enjoy the fruits of the knowledge you have gained. And it will keep working. I'd love to trade places with any of you.
BECKY: Bill, do you have any extra thoughts on that?
GATES: Well, the best systems are ones where you have good short-term metrics, great accounting, looking at profits, looking at risk and willing to do things long-term. Investing in new research, letting people build new companies. I was a huge beneficiary of this country's unique willingness to take risk on a young person. And, you know, I got to hire people who were older. I got to sell to people who were older. And it was kind of a dream come true. And that kind of thing is -- other countries have seen it and they are trying to create that same dynamic. And that's good for the world. It's excellent that China and India will borrow our ideas about universities, about entrepreneurship, simplification of business. None of us want to borrow this extreme leverage that we got into. But in a sense, that's kind of a -- I don't want to say minor, but it doesn't speak to the heart of why things have worked so well.
BECKY: All right. Let's get to another question. How about right here?
QUESTION: Hello. My name is Accosia Bagima. I am from the Northern Virginia area and I'm a first-year student here at Columbia. And I want to thank, once again, both of you for coming. It's an honor. My question is directed toward Mr. Gates. Mr. Gates, I know you're not in the finance industry, but can you tell us what you were feeling when you first heard that Lehman was filing for bankruptcy?
GATES: I don't follow investment banks, you know, very closely. So it didn't strike me as fundamentally a terrible thing. In the technology business, the two companies I admired the most, Wang Industries and Digital Equipment, had both basically gone bankrupt. Digital actually got bought. And so the fact that there's these ups and downs, certain firms get knocked out, I didn't have any sentimentality over that particular firm. Now, this knock-on effect where other people had debts to them and those were going to be very hard to settle and that complexity might cause things to freeze up, that I called up Warren and I said, "Should I be worried?" And he said, "A little bit." [LAUGHTER]
BECKY: Warren, was it a mistake for the government to allow Lehman to go under?
BUFFETT: It may have been. But I would say overall, the officials in Washington did a terrific job of dealing with really what was an economic Pearl Harbor, as we talked about. So I would say that if Merrill hadn't been bought by the B of A, Merrill would have gone very quickly. And the dominoes were really lined up. And I don't think it was fully appreciated, perhaps, what a big domino Lehman was or how close it was to the next big dominoes. But overall, I give (former Treasury Secretary Henry) Paulson, I give (Federal Reserve Chairman Ben)Bernanke, I give (FDIC Chairman) Sheila Bair, I give (Treasury Secretary) Tim Geithner, I give them very high marks for the fact they took unprecedented action. [APPLAUSE]
BECKY: Let's get to another question. Right back here at the microphone. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I hope this works.
BECKY: It does. It sounds like it.
QUESTION: Hi, my name is Greg Letter. I grew up in Ohio and I'm also a current student, obviously. My question was with Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs, this relates to Mr. Buffett, you had the opportunity to invest. I was wondering how you chose to invest in Goldman Sachs and why you chose not to maybe invest in both, or what made you not decide to invest in Lehman Brothers.
BUFFETT: I had more confidence in both the numbers and the management of Goldman Sachs than any other major firm in Wall Street at that time. Now, there could have been things happened that would have made Goldman Sachs be next in line. (Goldman CEO) Roy Blankfein had said I worked 30 seconds behind Morgan Stanley. This is covered very well in the book called "Too Big To Fail" by Andrew Ross Sorken. But I did not think the system was going to go under. I felt Washington in the end would do the right thing. I thought if they did the right thing, Goldman Sachs was -- I thought it was the best-run operation. I thought its figures were the most solid and I thought they would prosper the most in the future ahead. Plus I liked the terms, too. [LAUGHTER]
BECKY: Warren, you said at that time they had the best management and a lot of other things. Did you change your mind since then?
BUFFETT: Pardon me?
BECKY: Have you changed your mind since then? You said at that time they had the best management.
BUFFETT: Goldman, my experience with Goldman goes back to when I met Sidney Weinberg in 1940. I followed the company a long time. They have a discipline around there that I think particularly in their marking to market and all of that, I think probably is the best among the firms in Wall Street. And I thought Roy Blankfein had a very strong appreciation of risk. Now, if the system went down, everybody gets hit. But I felt to a great extent they had factored the best people into the business. So they were my number one choice. I had a few other choices that were offered to me. [APPLAUSE]
BECKY: Let's get to another question, everybody. Another question.
QUESTION: It's a pleasure to be here with both of you today. My name is John Lemley. I'm originally from Scarsdale, New York. Given the severity of the economic downturn, which some attribute to systemic breakdown in risk allegation and underwriting standards, a fiercely partisan debate has ensued regarding the appropriate role of government. Can this role be positive and if so, how?
BECKY: What do you guys think about big government?
GATES: Well, there's clearly a role for the government in business cycles. And over time, that's been tuned, you know, mistakes have been made. Now, the question is -- and that's largely measured through inflation and interest rates. Now, there's a question of could there be a measure of risk that would cause them to step in and maybe tax transactions, make the bigger firms put more money aside. That is still really a question of whether you can recognize these situations and actually have government play a very positive role. Now, as things start to fall apart, we know there are ways that taking firms that are going down and handling those in a more expedited way -- there's a lot that can be done there. But the basic idea of, can you spot bubbles? Can the government spot bubbles? That's a great question. Some great economists have some ideas. But it is not a proven territory.
BUFFETT: Last September, only the government could have saved things. The whole world wanted to deleverage. And they were deleveraging under conditions of extreme haste and with guns to their head in some cases. And the only entity that could possibly leverage up at the same time that everybody else wanted to deleverage was the Federal government. And when 200 billion flowed out of money market funds in a couple of days, when commercial paper stopped, only the Federal government could act then. And fortunately we had the people there who recognized that and acted promptly. The government has a huge role. And now going forward, it's a very tricky thing to figure out how to prevent excessive leverage and prevent off-balance sheet arrangements from getting in trouble or for just having people at the top of major institutions that run risks they shouldn't be running. But we're wrestling with that right now. There should be more down side to the head of any institution that has to go to the federal government to be saved for reasons of the greater society. And so far, we have been better at carrots and sticks in rewarding CEOs at the top. But I think some more sticks are called for.
BECKY: All right. Let's get to another question. [APPLAUSE]
QUESTION: My name is Brian, first-year student here at Columbia. And I run a business school right now and seems to me a lot of the villains in the full credit crisis were business school graduates. To what extent do you guys think that business schools like Columbia were in some sense responsible for what transpired in the credit crisis?
GATES: Well, remember that capitalism has been massively successful, you know. Standard of life, medicine, all these great things have come out of it. And business schools play a role in training people to think about value, leadership. There's wonderful skills that are taught at great schools like this. And so the fact that, yes, we have had a crisis and we have dropped back, maybe we wasted two or three years net because of the things that were done wrong, that doesn't say that business schools aren't performing a great service, you know. The case studies of this crisis will be taught here for decades to come. And so at least we'll get that benefit out of the pain we went through. Leverage is a very dangerous thing. And perhaps, you know, Warren talked about derivatives as weapons of mass destruction. That wasn't much heeded. And yet at the end of the day, what happened here, particularly in the real estate sector, the notion of risk that price would drop down and what that meant systematically for those instruments, it wasn't well understood. And the mass destruction followed as predicted.
BECKY: Warren, can you teach ethics in a business school? Does it have to come from somewhere else?
BUFFETT: Come back now?
BECKY: Can you teach ethics at a business school?
BUFFETT: Well, I think the best place to learn ethics is in the home. I think most of us get our values from what we see around us before we get to business school. I think that it's important to emphasize them, but I think that if I had a choice of having great education and ethics fully on in the home or as a course in a school later on, I would choose the home. The wonderful thing about it is in this country, is you can succeed magnificently with ethics. It's not a hindrance. It's a help sometimes. It's a neutral sometimes. But it's not a hindrance at all. And to cut corners, you know, everybody here has a wonderful future. I mean, this is an economy you're going into that is so much -- [APPLAUSE] If you look back on the 19th Century, we had seven great bank panics. If you look back at the 20th Century, we had the Great Depression and world wars and flu epidemics. This country doesn't avoid problems. It just solves them. And in the next 100 years, our machine will sputter again, you know. Maybe 15 years will be so-so years, but there will be 85 great years. And during the 20th Century the Dow went from 66 to 11,400, so this is fertile soil that you're working in and there's no reasons to cut corners.
BECKY: All right. Let's get another question. [APPLAUSE]
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Katrina Gankena, and I was born in Russia. And I'm a second-year student at Columbia Business School. My question is for Mr. Gates. What industry do you think is going to produce the next Bill Gates? Because that's the industry I want to get a job in. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE]
GATES: Industries do have different paces of innovation. So the IT industry, driven by the magic of software, the magic of the optic fiber, magic of the chip which doubles in power every couple of years, it's been the industry that has not only been the most exciting, it's also changed the rules for many other industries. The idea of information being available, what the online world is like, that's incredible. I'll tell you, there are a few other industries that will compete for being exciting in the decades ahead. The energy business, some approach will provide cheaper energy that's environmentally friendly. And there's a lot of science, a lot of business. That's a global thing. There will be some great careers there. Medicine, you know. We haven't solved Parkinson's or Alzheimer's or about 20 diseases of these poor countries, and yet we can be sure that we're on track to do that. And so those three industries I think you would do great in. There's many others, but those are the ones that have the strongest appeal to me.
BUFFETT: Find what turns you on. Find what you have a passion for. If somebody said to me when I was getting out of Columbia, you know, that Bill's business was going to be the one that would be exciting, you know, I don't think I'd have done so well. [LAUGHTER] But I knew what turned me on. I had a professor, Ben Graham, I offered to go to work for him for nothing. He said, "You're overpriced." Nonetheless, I went into the business. [APPLAUSE] I will guarantee, you will do well at whatever turns you on. There's no question about that. Don't let anybody else tell you what to do. You figure out what you are doing. [APPLAUSE]
BECKY: All right. We actually got the chance to poll these students. And we asked them if there would ever be a company as transformative as Microsoft in their lifetime. You might be surprised at their response. We will tell you right after this break.
LOOKING FOR THE NEXT BILL GATES
BECKY: Welcome back to CNBC's town hall. We are with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett at the Columbia School of Business at Columbia University. We're in the heart of New York City. And before we went to that break, we asked one of our students -- one of our students actually asked, which industry is going to be producing the next Bill Gates. Now, as we mentioned, we got the chance to take a poll of the students in this room and we asked them if they thought they would ever see a company as transformative as Microsoft in their lifetimes again. Gentlemen, eight out of 10 said yes. That's 80% saying yes, they do think this will be another issue. You guys are a very enthusiastic bunch. Bill, do you share that sense of optimism?
GATES: Absolutely. Capitalism is great and having thousands of things going on in parallel. And a lot of them fail. Some are just mediocre. But the ones that are special can grow and, you know, stun everybody. And in all those fields I mentioned, there is going to be several companies that kind of take your breath away.
BECKY: All right. Let's get to another student question. [APPLAUSE]
QUESTION: Hi, my name is Lisa Williams. I'm from South Orange, New Jersey. I'm currently a first-year at the MBA program. Glad to have you both here. My question is actually for Mr. Buffett. There has been a lost of discussion around the true drivers with the recent deal with Burlington Northern . I was wondering if you could share with us your key motivation for wanting to increase exposure to the railroad sector at this time.
BUFFETT: You know, when I was six, I wanted a railroad set and my dad didn't get it. [APPLAUSE] You think about it. The railroads are tied to the future prosperity of this country. You can't move a railroad to China or India or anyplace else. We start out with the premise, and I can't think of a more sound premise, that there will be more people in this country, 10, 20, 30 years from now. They will be moving more and more goods back and forth to each other. And you have the most environmentally friendly and the most cost-efficient way of doing that on the railroads. The Burlington Northern last year moved -- on average it moved a ton of freight, 470 miles on one gallon of diesel. That is far, far more efficient than what takes place over the highways. You have the situation where overall they use 1/3 less fuel, they put far fewer pollutants into the atmosphere than trucks will. One train will supplant 280 trucks are so on the road. So the rails are in tune with the future. I like the West. I like the 30-some-thousand miles of roadway that Burlington has. And, you know, if this country has a poor future, the rails have a poor future. I'm willing to bet a lot of money, 34 billion to be specific -- [LAUGHTER] -- on the fact that 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 50 years from now, there will be more and more goods being moved by rail and better for the country and it will be better for the shareholders of the Burlington Northern.
BECKY: OK. [APPLAUSE] Another question.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Josh Porter. I'm a first-year from North Reading, Massachusetts. It's an honor to have you both here. So we just went through the worst financial crisis of hopefully all of our lifetime. And I know it keeps a lot of Americans up at night, you know, worrying about their future. What, if anything, keeps either of you up at night?
BUFFETT: I try to live my life so nothing keeps me up at night. [APPLAUSE] I don't like to sound, you know, like a mortician during an epidemic or anything, but last fall was really quite exciting for me. [LAUGHTER] I don't wish it on anybody, but there were things being offered. There are opportunities for us to do things that didn't exist a year or two earlier. So I really don't -- I don't want to be in a position where I am leveraged or something of the sort that does keep me up at night. I did not worry about the ultimate survival of our economic system. We were messed up. Wasn't any question about that. But the plants haven't gone away. The cornfields haven't gone away. The talent of the American people hasn't gone away. The innovativeness of the next Bill Gates hasn't gone away. This country was going to do fine. I knew that. We just had to get things straightened out. And we're well on the way to having that happen.
BECKY: Bill, you mentioned -- [APPLAUSE] You mentioned before that you called Warren and he said, ‘Yeah, we should maybe be a little worried.’ Did you stay up late that night worrying about it?
GATES: No. The financial system, fortunately, good leadership has a lot of self-correction built into it. I think there are a few things that could surprise us that are negative. You know, big terrorist event sometime in the next 20 years, that would be a big negative. And a pandemic, which we're actually having in terms of the rate of spread of a new flu, one right now. And fortunately, its actual impact is very modest, way less than any such thing. So you have to keep your eye out for a few outliers like that. Those are the two that I would point to. But overwhelmingly, the rest of the system, you know, there is self-correction built into it. The long-term thing that I don't lose sleep over but I worry about is that we do have our education system, particularly the K through 12 part, not improving as much as we should. And it's an important system for opportunity, it's an important system for the economic strength of the country, and since it hasn't improved that much, that's a bit scary and needs a lot more attention.
BUFFETT: Becky, if you had a wonderful farm and you knew the next 50 years there would be five droughts but there would be 45 good years, I mean, you would not become paralyzed thinking about the five drought years. You would recognize that you've got a system that works very well over time, and that's our American economic system.
BECKY: Since we just had the drought year, does that make it less likely for the --
BUFFETT: No. If you study statistics at Columbia, you'd recognize that -- [APPLAUSE]
BECKY: OK. Let's get to another question. Right back here.
QUESTION: I'm Peter Lawrence, first-year student from Columbia. And, first of all, thank you both so much for coming here. Mr. Buffett, the recent runup in the market has been historic. And it seems that many people question the sustainability of the current price level. Do you think the rally is for real?
BUFFETT: What's going to happen tomorrow, huh? [APPLAUSE] Let me give you an illustration. I bought my first stock in 1942. I was 11. I had been dillydallying up until then. I got serious. [LAUGHTER] What do you think the best year for the market has been since 1942? Best calendar year from 1942 to the present time. Well, there's no reason for you to know the answer. The answer is 1954. In 1954, the Dow … dividends was up 50%. Now if you look at 1954, we were in a recession a good bit of that time. The recession started in July of '53. Unemployment peaked in September of '54. So until November of '54 you hadn't seen an uptick in the employment figure. And the unemployment figure more than doubled during that period. It was the best year there was for the market. So it's a terrible mistake to look at what's going on in the economy today and then decide whether to buy or sell stocks based on it. You should decide whether to buy or sell stocks based on how much you're getting for your money, long-term value you're getting for your money at any given time. And next week doesn't make any difference because next week, next week is going to be a week further away. And the important thing is to have the right long-term outlook, evaluate the businesses you are buying. And then a terrible market or a terrible economy is your friend. I don't care, in making a purchase of the Burlington Northern, I don't care whether next week, or next month or even next year there is a big revival in car loadings or any of that sort of thing. A period like this gives me a chance to do things. It's silly to wait. I wrote an article. If you wait until you see the robin, spring will be over.
BECKY: But at the same time -- [APPLAUSE] Warren, you have repeatedly said over the last year that investing in American areas is a bet on the future of America. But you have also invested overseas, companies like BYD. You both spent some time in China. Are there more opportunities overseas or right here in America?
BUFFETT: I see more opportunity in the United States. We're the biggest economy and we're looking for big deals. But I am delighted to find something, you know, whether it's in China or whether it's in Israel, like Iscar or whatever it may be. There are more opportunities in the United States than anyplace else.
BECKY: Bill, you agree with that?
GATES: Well, yes. The U.S. benefits as the globe benefits. You're not going to have a case where the rest of the world does poorly and the U.S. does well. Our fate is tied to open trade, innovation everywhere. You know, even the Burlington, some of the stuff that's on those railroads might come from other countries.
BUFFETT: I hope so.
GATES: It's exciting to see what's going on in China. It's great for us. If we had a choice for all the people in China to be as rich as we are versus be as poor as they were back in 1979, we'd be way better off to say, you know, let's have them be consumers and inventors just like we are. They are a long ways away from that. But they are a large enough population that great things are happening there. And, you know, many countries that we thought of as basket cases and we sent lots of aid to, like Brazil or Mexico or Thailand, are now big contributors. So it's good for the world that it's not as dependent just on the U.S. But the U.S. is where the energy revolution is likely to happen, the IT revolution will continue. We are expected to lead the way.
BECKY: All right. We're going to be back with another question in just a moment. [APPLAUSE] And by the way, if you have the chance, how would you like to have Warren Buffett or Bill Gates as your career counselor? Well, we're going to have that when we come right back. [APPLAUSE]