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The U.S. Dollar, China & Acme Brick: Ask Warren Transcript - Part 7

The U.S. dollar, the Swiss franc, the future of China, Acme Brick, and why Buffett always starts from a "position of fear."

This is part seven of the transcript and video of Warren Buffett's 'Ask Warren' appearance on CNBC's Squawk Box on Monday, March 1, 2010.

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QUICK: And we've got just a few minutes left before we have some data that comes out. Warren, I thought we could do some rapid fire questions that have come in from shareholders, too.

BUFFETT: OK. Yeah.

QUICK: All right. Here's the first one. This comes from Bojan in Phoenix, Arizona. "If you had to change all cash from the US dollar, which currency would you buy?"

BUFFETT: That's a tough question. It might be the Swiss franc.

QUICK: It might be the Swiss franc?

BUFFETT: Well, if you're--if you're saying I have to do it.

QUICK: Yeah, you have to.

BUFFETT: We have our money in dollars, overwhelmingly, but if I had to pick one, I might pick that.

QUICK: All right. I'm going to break from rapid fire. Why?

BUFFETT: Well, I just--I worry--I worry about all currencies. So I mean, currencies are the prospect--the future of a currency is a product of governmental action and I--the real question is, how disciplined governments will be over a long period of time. Our government has been pretty darn good. On the other hand, you know, I was born in 1930 and the price level is probably 15 times what it was then, so currencies depreciate over time. And the real question is where are they likely to depreciate the least. And I--but I'm--I'm not making that bet. I'm just--you asked me a question, and I gave you a fast answer.

QUICK: We forced it on you.

KERNEN: If we...

QUICK: Go ahead. Go ahead, Joe.

KERNEN: Becky, if Warren--have you covered any of your dollars short, Warren? Because I don't know if you saw this--what happened with the euro recently, but you've been short the dollar for years, right? Did you cover any? Or have you lost some money in the last three months?

BUFFETT: No, we have no real foreign currency. We haven't had any foreign currency transactions as foreign currency transactions themselves for some years. Now, we own a lot of things in dollars, we own--we own a utility business in England, which makes us money in pounds. We own Cologne Re in Germany, and so we have earnings in different currencies around the world. Well, we've had no explicit currency transactions...

KERNEN: Oh, you used--because there was a couple of years ago, then. Because you used to, right?

BUFFETT: It was a couple of years ago, yeah, right.

KERNEN: You were short--you were short the dollar. OK. So you got--you don't have that position anymore.

BUFFETT: No. We were long about 10 different currencies against the dollar, maybe, I don't know, three or four years ago...

KERNEN: OK.

BUFFETT: ...and we closed all those positions up. But the best thing to own, you know, the best thing to have is your own talent. They can't take that away from you. But the best thing to own is a good business. A good business, you know, you know, whether it's Frito-Lay or whether it's Coca-Cola or whatever it may be, they will retain their value in real terms in my judgment over time no matter what governments do to currency.

QUICK: You said, though, that a bet either for or against a currency is a bet for or against that government. If you were worried, and let's say you're worry level and let's just measure a couple of things against each other, euro vs. the dollar, which worries you more?

BUFFETT: That's a tough--that's a tough call. I mean, both the euro, European Union countries and the United States are running very large deficits. I mean, they--both of those currencies in terms of purchasing power will decline in value over time in my judgment.

QUICK: British pound vs. the dollar. Is that the same story?

BUFFETT: Same way. I--there are all--they are all following policies that will cause their currencies to lose value. Which one will lose more value than the other, it's so hard to tell.

QUICK: Yen vs. the dollar? Same story?

BUFFETT: The yen is--Japan is the great mystery of all time. I mean, in terms of the policies they follow, what happens, you know, low interest rates, huge deficits and all of that sort of thing. That one is a mystery I don't even try to think about solving.

QUICK: OK. Let's get back to rapid fire, some of these questions from our viewers. Peter in New York writes in, "How many annual reports do you read a year?"

BUFFETT: Oh, I read hundreds. I just over--you mentioned AIG. I read a 550-page 10K. That's 550 pages printed out. I don't know how many go in, but I read that on Friday night, for example. And I read--I read a lot of reports. I keep looking for a centerfold or something in these reports, I never find one.

QUICK: All right. Here's a question from Bulgaria. "Have you ever thought about buying a country?"

BUFFETT: I don't think I want to own a country. That is not financially very good, although the power to tax would be kind of interesting.

QUICK: All right. And this is a real--this is a really mean one from Eric in Chicago.

BUFFETT: Ah.

QUICK: He says, "On air live, in front of the camera, what's a 173 times 192?"

BUFFETT: I don't know the answer to that. I could square numbers up to 100 very easily in my head, but above 100 it gets hard.

QUICK: So what's 200--or 2,350,000 worth in 15 years if it compounds at 13 percent?

BUFFETT: Well, it would--it would--it's--in 13 years?

QUICK: Yeah.

BUFFETT: It would be--it would be something...

KERNEN: I'll get that one.

BUFFETT: ...is two million--about 10...

QUICK: Two million, three-hundred and fifty-thousand.

BUFFETT: It would be around 10 million, yeah.

QUICK: All right. Well done. OK. Carl, we'll send it back to you.

QUINTANILLA: That was...

QUICK: I know we have some data coming up very quickly.

QUINTANILLA: There's a new reality show, "Are You Smarter Than Warren Buffett?"

KERNEN: Yeah.

QUINTANILLA: Don't you think?

KERNEN: Hey, Warren, Warren, were you using the rule of 72 there? You were, weren't you?

BUFFETT: No, actually, I was calculating the distance of the moon and dividing by the speed of sound.

QUINTANILLA: That was the best part of TV so far this morning. A lot more, in fact, and Warren in Omaha in a little bit.

QUICK: You know, Carl, we were just talking while that information was coming out, and Warren said there is a currency that maybe he would look at a little more strongly. We were trying to weigh all those currencies against each other. What--Warren, what currency is it?

BUFFETT: Well, I mentioned the Chinese yuan, which you can't--renminbi.

QUICK: Right.

BUFFETT: But you--that's not freely transferable. But we actually did a bond issue here not so long ago that's by an American company but it's--it floats with the renminbi so that in effect it's a renminbi denominated instrument.

QUICK: Are any stakes you might own in a Chinese company, like you've bought in with BYD? Is that a bet, also, on that same?

BUFFETT: Well, it--that's not primarily the bet, but--at all. But I would say that having--putting an investment into a Chinese company at the present conversion rates, I would figure I might have a currency play as well.

QUICK: That brings us to one of the questions we got from some of our viewers, too. Let's start out with question 1663. It--this comes from James Wood in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. He says, `Since emerging market economies are growing at two to three times faster than those of developed countries, what percent of one's equity portfolio should be in emerging markets?'

BUFFETT: You know, your portfolio ought to be in businesses you understand, where you understand their future economics. And they may be in emerging countries, they may be in the United States, and you're likely to understand them better in the United States. But the--sticking the name "emerging country" after a stock does not make it better. I mean, you have to know what you're buying, you have to know the business, you have to feel good about the management and you have to feel good about the price you're buying into it. And I would not--I would not--wouldn't make any difference to me if I had zero of my money in emerging markets, I want to have it in things that I understand and I think are attractive and I think are going to earn more money five years from now and 10 years from now than they are now.

QUICK: You know, you mentioned China as an area that's obviously very rapidly growing. Several years ago you looked at South Korea as a place where you had...

BUFFETT: Right.

QUICK: ...not paid attention before and you saw that. Would you say China is your favorite overseas market right now?

BUFFETT: Well...

QUICK: If you had to generalize.

BUFFETT: ...you can't buy it yet. Yeah, we--the only Chinese stock we own is BYD.

QUICK: Is BYD.

BUFFETT: But certainly, the--I think the Chinese economy will do very well over the next as far as the eye can see. That doesn't mean it'll do well next year, or that their stock market will go up or anything like that. They'll have bubbles and they'll have all the same kind of interruptions that we've had in the last 200 years. But they're going to go places over time.

QUICK: OK, let's get to some more shareholder questions, or some more viewer questions. This comes from Zanesville, Ohio, Robert Shackelford. He says, "Would you be greedy or fearful in today's market?" You talk all the time about how you should be greedy when others are fearful, and fearful when others are greedy.

BUFFETT: Yeah.

QUICK: Well, what are you?

BUFFETT: Well, I always start from a position of fear. And then when I see something that looks attractive, I start getting greedy. So--but I'm always looking at the downside on something first. I mean, if you can't lose money, you're going to make money. And we--one reason we've done reasonably well, and this really go--goes back to when I was age 20 and learned from Graham, because my first 10 years were the best, is we've never lost a lot of money as a percentage of our net worth. I mean, and--in terms of permanent loss. Now, things may go down 50 percent. Berkshire's stock has gone down 50 percent four times in the time that I've owned it. But in terms of permanent loss, we've never--we've had plenty of losses, but they've never been the kind that really are destructive. And I always look at the downside first in anything.

QUICK: But in the broad sense of the markets, I mean, if you're looking at late 2008, early 2009, there was so much fear out there.

BUFFETT: That's...

QUICK: When you measure now, if you had to put a tipping scale on more greedy investors right now or more fearful investors, which way would the scale tip?

BUFFETT: Over a long period of time--I mean, if you're investing, and you should invest for the long term, I would rather own equities than have fixed-dollar investments and have--or keep my money rolling short-term.

QUICK: OK. This question comes from David in Los Angeles. He says, "Do you feel the uptick rule is beneficial for investors in the market as a whole? And if so, why?"

BUFFETT: On balance, I probably favor it. It's not something that makes a lot of difference to an investor. It really doesn't make any difference to an investor. If you--if you're an investor and you buy a stock, I don't know whether there's an uptick rule in farms, you know, or in apartment houses. The important thing is to buy the right company. And the uptick rule should be of no concern to real investors.

QUICK: Unless you're somebody who's maybe a hedge fund, who's used to shorting things, and you get worried that your strategy's not going to work in the future.

BUFFETT: Shorting isn't investing. That doesn't mean you can't make money doing it and all of that, but that--if you're talking to the American public about what they do with their money, they ought to forget all about shorting and they should--they should not buy an invest--they should buy an investment with the idea that if the stock exchange closed tomorrow for two or three years, they'd be very happy, you know, with the business.

QUICK: OK. William Olsen writes in from Windham, Maine, and he says, "What suggestions would you make to Toyota's president, Akio Toyoda, to help him deal with the drop in consumer confidence and the tarnished brand?"

BUFFETT: I'd have him go see the movie "Groundhog Day," just hoping it'd start all over again. I mean, this is pretty far down the road. In crisis management--I did that one time at Salomon a little bit--the--as far as I'm concerned, there's just four rules, you know: get it right, get it fast, get it out, get it over. You know, and you want to get it right as fast as you can, get it fast, get it out and get it over. And that--and if you skip--if you--if you try and eliminate one of those steps, you've got troubles.

QUICK: You know, Geico is now the third largest car insurer in the United States. I know that Congress has asked State Farm and Allstate for information about whether the number of Toyota incidents had climbed over the last several years in terms of accidents and problems that they were finding. Do you know if Geico has seen any increase in the number of accidents of Toyota?

BUFFETT: I don't know the answer to it. I know we'd be glad to supply it to any congressional committee, but I do not know the answer to that.

QUICK: You don't know the answer. OK, let's jump to question 255. This comes from a gentleman in Princeton, New Jersey, who says, `Warren, I feel lucky to have witnessed such a massive recession at the young age of 22 years, where I fortunately did not have as much money to lose in the markets, but everything to gain in terms of knowledge. As I start my career in finance, what would you say are some lessons I should take away from these past two years?'

BUFFETT: You know, the lessons are the same that--you go back to "The Intelligent Investor," it was written in 1949, read chapters eight and 20. I mean, think of--think of buying a stock as buying a piece of a business. If you buy the right business at the right price and hold it, you know, you do fine. I mean, it's when you start thinking of stocks as little things that wiggle around and the charts and all that sort of thing that you get in trouble. But buy a good business, buy it at a price that seems reasonable, buy only the kind of business you understand and then forget about it for years.

QUICK: OK, Carl's got a question as well. Carl.

QUINTANILLA: Warren, we haven't spent too much time talking about Fed policy, exit policy. But given the commentary you've heard from the chairman, any--give us a sense of how you're feeling on how they're going to land this jumbo jet in the next few months...

BUFFETT: I...

QUINTANILLA: ...and over the course of the coming year.

BUFFETT: I think that the chairman has an extraordinarily difficult job ahead of him because of the fiscal policies that are taking place in the country. I don't think you could have anybody more able than Ben Bernanke running the federal reserve. You know, he's--but it is going to be a very tough job to have huge fiscal deficits and essentially work with monetary policy and the other tools that are available to the Fed to avoid inflationary consequence--I mean, he's got a lot of problems ahead of him, but he's the guy to handle them.

QUINTANILLA: Yeah. Do you think the market is...

BUFFETT: I do not--I don't want his job.

QUINTANILLA: I don't--I don't know anybody who does. Do you think the market has the legs to withstand the end of MBS at the end of the month? People keep talking about how much of a surprise that'll bring us, given the end of the purchasing. But then on the other hand, we've known it's been--it's coming for some time. Do you see shocks as a result of the withdrawal of policy?

BUFFETT: I doubt that. But what--you know, you have had this huge purchaser in there in the Fed, you know, over a trillion dollars of those securities, and that's obviously had some market effect. And, you know, the Fed has a very big balance sheet. Here, I'll give you a quick quiz. You know, what's the most profitable entity in the United States, you know?

QUINTANILLA: I think I know the answer, yeah.

BUFFETT: Yeah, the Federal Reserve. It made 45 billion last year. I mean, it is the greatest carry operation in the world. Money costs nothing and you've got all these assets, and now you've got a trillion of MBSs, you know, earning this money. Bernanke gets paid about $200,000 a year. If he had a two and 20 deal, I would want my daughter to marry him, I can tell you that.

KERNEN: Warren, are you--are you done with--are you done with media, you think, and media investing? I don't know where you are in Washington Post right now. And the reason I ask, you know, Comcast decided NBCU fit with its business model. Is this--for you, is it just you're not smart enough, even you, to figure out which way media goes into the future? Is--are railroads just easier at this point?

BUFFETT: Yeah, they are easier. But media's enormously important, and there'll be a lot of money made in media. Figuring out, you know, who's going to make it, certainly newspapers aren't going to make it, you know, and magazines won't do that well. But there--people want to be entertained, they want to be informed. You know, the eyeballs will be focused on something, and wherever they're focused there will be money to be made. But I--there's too many things I can't figure out. I did not see, you know, 15 years ago, I--you know, I didn't see eBay or YouTube or Hulu or you name it. And all these things come along and they're terrific for me as a consumer. But I want--I want things I can figure out like, you know, Coca-Cola. I--I've got a pretty good idea where Coca-Cola will be in 10 years, or Proctor & Gamble, or companies of that sort. I do not know how the media landscape shakes out. But there will--it's a very interesting landscape, it's just that I'll let somebody else make the money in it.

QUICK: Warren, there's a question that comes from David Herendine in St. Louis, Missouri. He says, `A large portion of the jobs created this last decade were either housing or mortgage related. Many of these jobs have evaporated. Where do you see job growth for the next decade? And is green technology legitimate?'

BUFFETT: Well, housing will come back. I mean, right now we have a company called Acme Brick. We make about 10 percent of the brick in the United States. Three or four years ago, we were making 100 million bricks a month. We're making 40 million bricks a month now. Half our brick plants are closed down. Those employees have been laid off. When housing construction comes back to a million-one or a million-two, we'll hire a lot of people back. I mean, those industries aren't gone. The problem was we produced two million houses a year and we were eating up, in effect, a million-two or a million-three. And we have to work off that excess inventory. But people are going to want houses, they're going to want brick houses. We're going to sell 100 million brick a year again at some point. And when we do, we'll be employing another 1,000 or 1500 people. So the sooner we get through this period, the better. And we have moved a fair distance through the residential construction problem. We have--the commercial real estate problem is yet to hit big time.

BUFFETT: We have--the commercial real estate problem is yet to hit big time.

QUICK: Well, let me ask David's second question again. "Is green technology legitimate?"

BUFFETT: Well, there's all kinds of green technology that makes sense, sure. We're using it in carpet, I mean, and insulation, all kinds of things, sure.

KERNEN: But Warren, Warren...

QUICK: A lot of--oh, go ahead.

KERNEN: ...is it really called Acme Brick, Warren? I mean, is that--that--is that's like the coyote bought something and put it up on a ledge when the Road--and it was Acme Brick wasn't it that--is it really called Acme Brick? Is that a joke?

BUFFETT: Acme Brick is probably the best-known brick in the United States. If you go to Texas and you ask people to name a brick, they will name Acme. And try doing that in New York and see what they come up with.

KERNEN: Yeah, I thought you were--I thought you were joking. I thought...

BUFFETT: It's very hard...

QUINTANILLA: I think they also sell those holes that you put down on the ground and they create a hole in the ground.

KERNEN: I think that these can suspend in midair, too, and if you pull--if you look over you don't fall till you look over. Sorry.

BUFFETT: We guarantee our brick for our 100--we guarantee our brick for 100 years, Joe.

KERNEN: All right. After three hours, I'm sorry, that's my only--that's the only one I've done. But I think--I love cartoons. All right, go ahead.

BUFFETT: I'll mail--I'll mail you a brick--I'll mail you a brick as a birthday present.

KERNEN: Send me an...

QUINTANILLA: Throw it in the window.

KERNEN: You know, that's about what I'd expect you to send me. What is that worth, about 12 cents, one brick? Probably.

BUFFETT: Well, I'll say closer to 32 cents.

KERNEN: Thirty-two cents.

QUICK: Thirty-two cents, there you go.

KERNEN: Thirty-two cents. Thank you.

BUFFETT: Yeah, we'll send it COD.

QUICK: That costs a lot to--cash on delivery. Nice. Warren, a lot of people wrote in about jobs, though. That is a huge issue that people are focused on.

BUFFETT: It is.

QUICK: Brian Howe in Boston, Massachusetts, says, "Many economists have indicated that we will have a jobless recovery. How is that possible with unemployment at 10% and underemployed adding another 10% to 15% to that undervalued statistic?" You can quibble with the math on that, but you are talking about some very high numbers. It would seem to me that the drag of nonworking, underemployed people at that high rate would significantly hold any recovery at bay.

BUFFETT: That's the problem. That's what, you know, Keynesianism addresses the fact that you need--you need to feed in demand from government. But we will--the jobs--the jobs will come back, but they're not--it's not going to be fast, Becky. I mean, we will have more people employed in the carpet business three years from now than we have now. We'll have more people employed in the brick business three years from now than now. But not necessarily six months from now.

QUICK: Another question on this same subject is from Nick Adena in Lebanon, Tennessee, who says, "How do we correct the massive bleed-off in blue-collar jobs specifically? If those people don't work then they can't spend." Same question.

BUFFETT: Yeah, it's a terrible spiral and, you know, we--in the 1980s we said we were going to lose all our jobs, you know, to Germany and Japan and, you know, in the next 10 or 15 years we created 20 million jobs. You don't know where they're coming from. And when this country--if you go back a couple hundred years you had 90 percent of the people on farms. And if you'd said somehow looking at--you had a crystal ball and said 200 years from now we'll get all of this food produced for 3 or 4 percent of the people you'd say, you know, the country's going to fall apart. But things happen. I mean, we are a creative people, and we'll continue to be a creative people.

QUICK: All right. Why don't we go ahead and take a quick break. When we come back, we'll have more of your e-mails for Warren Buffett, so stick around. SQUAWK BOX will be back right after this.

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