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CNBC Buffett Transcript Part 3: 'Elephant Gun' Targets & Riding the Railroad

Warren Buffett appeared live on CNBC's Squawk Box this morning, March 2, 2011.

This is part three of a transcript of his comments.

Click here for Part Two: The 'Zebra' That Got Away

BECKY QUICK: Welcome back, everybody. This is a special edition of SQUAWK BOX. We're live in Omaha with Warren Buffett, who's taken the time to sit down with us today and not only answer our questions, but also the questions that you've been sending in as well. And, Warren, we appreciate that. We got lots and lots of questions that came in. Carl mentioned that the probably most intriguing line of your letter was this idea that your elephant gun is loaded and you are ready, got an itchy trigger finger. That's what sparked a lot of the questions that came in. So do you mind if we play rapid fire real quickly with some of these questions?

BUFFETT: OK, go to it.

BECKY: All right, the first one, let's say, comes in from Miykael in Canada, who writes in, "With articles mentioning that you're looking for major acquisitions, with the economy favoring the low-cost segment, wouldn't Family Dollar be an ideal fit?"

BUFFETT: Well, there are a lot of companies that would be a fit at a price. It's easier for us to buy businesses that are privately owned than ones that are trading on the market because people— I don't care what the market price is in terms of what they're worth to us. But generally speaking, people, in evaluating mergers and acquisitions, look at the premium pay to the market price and decide whether that's a fair price or not. A fair price to us is one that— where we think we're going to get our money's worth in terms of future earnings, and I would say that we will generally have more luck with private businesses than public businesses, although Burlington was a public company, yeah.

BECKY: Mm-hmm.

BUFFETT: Most companies— most good companies sell at prices where if we were to pay a 20 percent premium to market, I would not want to buy them.

BECKY: Right.

BUFFETT: I mean, if you look at 50 large companies that would sort of fit the elephant category, if you add 20 percent to that price, I don't want to pay that for the business. There's a few exceptions to that, but not very many.

BECKY: All right. Well, let's talk about a private company. We had Whitney Tilson on our air earlier this week. He said he knows nothing, but it struck him that Mars might be an interesting company.

BUFFETT: Well, Mars is a wonderful business, and we're their partners in Wrigley. And if the Mars family were to ask me about selling their business, I would say keep it.

BECKY: Mm-hmm.

BUFFETT: I mean, if you own a wonderful business in life, the best thing to do is keep it. All you're going to do is trade your wonderful business for a whole bunch of cash, which isn't as good as the business, and now you got the problem of investing in other businesses, and you probably paid a tax in between. So my advice to anybody who owns a wonderful business is keep it. Now, sometimes there's a— some reason in terms of taxes or family situations or whatever it may be that a wonderful business is for sale. But I have told a number of people who've come to me who have wonderful businesses, if you can figure out a way to keep it, keep it, because all you're going to do is take that billion dollars you get, or 5 billion, you're going to pay some tax on it, now you're going to go out and buy some stocks, and most of those stocks you buy are not as wonderful as the business that you already owned, and you don't know as much about it and, you know, so sometimes it pays to know when you're well off.

BECKY: So why does anybody ever sell to you?

BUFFETT: Well, they sell because families subdivide, procreate or whatever you want to call it, and sometimes people lose interest in the business. We bought a company called See's Candy, one of our very first purchases back in 1972. Mary See had several grandchildren, and one of the grandchildren— grandsons was very interested in running the business, and one was less interested. And the one that was interested died, and the one that was less interested then decided to sell. It's lots— there's human dynamics that enter into it. But you should never sell a good business just to get money. That does not make sense.

BECKY: OK, let's take a few more viewer questions. This one's number 96, and he— again, this is Paul in Thailand, who wants to know, on this unloading the elephant gun, are you planning to unload in the United States or outside of the United States?

BUFFETT: Anyplace I can buy. I can't afford to be picky. There are so few chances out there that, you know, four or five years ago I was very lucky because I got a letter from Israel about Iscar.

Warren Buffett Speaks
Warren Buffett Speaks

BECKY: Mm-hmm.

BUFFETT: And I'd never heard of the company before, but I could tell it was our sort of business and our sort of management. So I would hope to get another letter like that tomorrow, and I don't care whether it comes from the UK or Germany or France or wherever. It's more likely to be the United States than any other place. But we have certainly not bought our last international company.

BECKY: Well, someone else writes in— Sergio from Mexico, he wants to know, "Is there some reason not to use the elephant gun on the stock market? For instance, increasing Wells Fargo to the 10 percent limit, or buying a lot more Wal-Mart?"

BUFFETT: Yeah. Well, we've done— in the last year we've done both of those things. We bought some more Wal-Mart, some more Wells Fargo.

BECKY: Mm-hmm.

BUFFETT: And I like those businesses, and I like the prices at which they sell, and I like the managements. But if I had my choice, I would rather buy a big business if it's all our criterion. But we have 60-plus billion in common stocks, and those are pieces of businesses that I like. And most of those businesses— now, Wells Fargo we couldn't buy. We can't buy a bank. You know, Coca-Cola isn't going to sell out to us, Wal-Mart isn't going to sell out to us. So we would be very happy owning 100 percent of those businesses at the prices at which they sell, or otherwise I wouldn't buy the stock.

BECKY: OK. Roman from Pittsburgh writes in, and I think I know the answer to this one, but he wants to know if you'd be interested in purchasing more US-based railroads at the right price. You can't do that, right?

BUFFETT: That would be pretty tough, yeah. In fact, when we bought the BNSF, it wasn't actually required by law, but we thought it was advisable to sell our holdings in the Norfolk Southern and the Union Pacific. And that probably cost me at least a billion dollars. I liked those stocks. I mean, I knew those companies were going to do well. And legally we didn't have to do it, but we thought that probably was a good idea. And now I think it's a bad idea.

BECKY: But it's not a reflection of your vision for the rest of these railroads?

BUFFETT: Oh, no, no. I thought— I would have— I would have bought more of those railroads. That— those— the railroads have a common future. The big railroads in the United States have a common future now. I like the ones in the West a little bit better than the East, but there are fundamental reasons why railroads were going to do well, and— no, if I could be loaded with— at least at the prices of a year ago, if I could have been loaded with other railroad stocks as well as buy the BNSF, I would have done it.

TRANSCRIPT PART FOUR: BLAME BANKERS, BANKERS, BANKERS?

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