CNBC Transcript: Warren Buffett's 'Stock Split' Interview - Part One


In a live interview on CNBC's Squawk Box this morning (Wednesday) ahead of a special Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting, Warren Buffett made news by strongly criticizing Kraft's planned acquisition of Cadbury.

He also told us Berkshire Hathaway's proposed split of its Class B shares does not mean that he has dropped his overall dislike of stock splits and share issuances, comparing the process to "preparing for a colonoscopy."


This is the first part of an unofficial transcript of the entire one-hour interview conducted by Becky Quick.

BECKY QUICK: I don't know how much you heard of the Wells Fargo (earnings) numbers that we were just --

WARREN BUFFETT: I heard a little bit.

BECKY: What was your immediate takeaway, and I know all you heard is --

BUFFETT: I didn't get the earnings at all. But I got the charge-offs at 5.4 billion. That's exactly what I would have expected. I think they expect them to peak toward the end of 2010, but that number is exactly what I would expect.

BECKY: What other headlines would you like us to pull up? What else would you be interested in hearing about?

BUFFETT: Well, my guess is that the revenue and all of that is more or less like I expected. I mean, Wells, right straight through this period has done pretty much exactly what they said they would do and they've made money consistently through it. They've run into much larger losses than anybody anticipated three or four years ago but they can handle them very easily. Last year we talked about 'em having 40 billion of pre-provision income in 2009, and you know, they had it, and that easily handles 20 billion, roughly, of losses.

BECKY: They also issued a lot more shares though, to pay back the government. What did you think of that?

BUFFETT: I didn't like it. (Laughs.) No, I mean, the government forced them to issue the shares. The government's done a lot of good things for the economy and net I'm a beneficiary and Berkshire Hathaway is a beneficiary of the things overall they've done. But they cost us real money at Wells Fargo.

BECKY: But was it the right move by the government or not?

BUFFETT: Well, it was the right move by the government to enter - to show that they were willing to act very promptly and decisively. The key actions by the government actually were in September and October of 2008. At that point, if the government had showed any hesitation about stepping in and doing whatever it took to get us past a financial panic, you know, things would be a lot different today. So the government did the right thing in acting - They didn't have to do this A, action A or action B or action C perfectly. What they did have to show is that it was not going to be a Herbert Hoover type situation and that they were going to jump in and do whatever it took.

BECKY: Before we get to a lot of the other questions, because this brings us to a jumping off point about many things the government is doing right now. I want to talk a little bit about why we're here today. And that's for Berkshire Hathaway's special shareholders meeting. This is a very unusual event. The idea of splitting the Class B shares 50-for-1. Why are you doing this?

BUFFETT: It shows you what happens when you get to be 79. (Laughs.)

BECKY: Some people are asking if you are completely changing your stance on a lot of different issues.


BECKY: Some people are saying, 'Is this going to mean a dividend's coming soon, too?'

BUFFETT: No, I don't think it means that. It made sense in terms of the Burlington Northern acquisition, because otherwise - We wanted to give a stock and cash option to their shareholders and to really effectively give it to the smaller shareholder we had to have something with a lower denomination in our Class B shares which were in the three-thousand dollar-plus range. The big shareholder would have gotten a different deal than the small shareholder otherwise. So it was an easy decision, actually.

BECKY: Do you think this is going to be an easy vote as well?

BUFFETT: Yeah, I'm sure of that. (Laughs.) I'm like a politician in Chicago. I've got the votes. (Laughs.)

BECKY: So you're going into this today knowing you have the votes. There are some people who say, hey, this could mean that Berkshire Hathaway could now become a member of the S&P 500. What do you think of that?

BUFFETT: Well, I don't know. I've never talked to S&P about it. I do know that we're probably four times as large in market cap as any company that isn't in it. And we will have - when we get through with this we could have like 700,000 shareholders or something of that sort. We'll have a lot of trading volume. But that's up to S&P.

BECKY: Would you like to be in?

BUFFETT: Well, I think probably for our shareholders it's a net plus, yeah.

BECKY: I know Joe's got some of those numbers that you were asking about for Wells Fargo. Joe?

JOE KERNEN: Berkshire could be a Dow component. I don't - don't stop at the S&P. We'll get rid of Alcoa or something, ah, I know - that would be great. Hey Warren, the revenue number on Wells was 22.7 and the estimate was I think 21.9. So unlike any of the other banks, I think that's the first one, I mean I didn't look at US Bancorp, but the major ones that we reported on, this is the first one that's beat on the revenue and it was also a profit of eight cents with the TARP repayment, even though the Street was looking for a loss of a penny. So, seems to be a little bit better and the stock is now 29, it's almost up a dollar at this point.

BUFFETT: Wells runs a terrific bank. They're a very customer-oriented bank. They're almost like thousands of community banks when you get right down to it. They have a lot of services they sell for each customer. So their revenues are going to come through. And actually when the stress test was done in the spring of last year, that's where the people evaluating them were way off, was on the revenue number. Wells did not disagree with them on the possible losses number, but they felt that the people just didn't understand the revenue potential, that were looking at them, and I agreed with them. But unfortunately they had to issue a lot of shares in conjunction with that stress test. I don't think Wells was ever going to disappoint on revenue. They have a lot of customers and those customers do a lot of business with them.

JOE: We've got so many things to go over, I've got - I don't even know where - I think of Wells and I think about the bank tax. Is that a good idea to pay for the GM bailout with a bank tax, Warren?

BUFFETT: No, I don't understand that. If it's some kind of a guilt tax or something of that sort because banks were among the whole United States that were saved back in 2008, everybody was taken care of then. And the banks, basically, somebody like Wells, it's cost them a lot of money to be in the TARP and it was basically forced upon them. (They) didn't want to take the money, but really had no choice. So that's cost Wells a lot of money. The government's made a lot of money off Wells. They've made a lot of money off Goldman. They've made a lot of money off J.P. Morgan. And where they're going to lose money, at least where its possible they'll lose money, is in the auto companies. So if you're going after the people you saved, you might say GM shareholders didn't get saved, the GM bondholders didn't get saved. What happened there is they kept employment. I'm the last guy to suggest that you should go and put a special tax on autoworkers. (Laughs.) If you're really looking for the people who benefited from government losses, you'd have to look there. Or if you look at Fannie or Freddie. Are you going to go and tax the members of Congress who ran Freddie and Fannie --

JOE: That's what I said! I can't believe you just said that. That's exactly what I - You could almost tax any company that was in business that wasn't going to be able to float any commercial paper, you could tax them too. Because they were saved - -

BUFFETT: Absolutely. In September of 2008 --

JOE: Don't give them any ideas! Warren, don't give them any ideas! They will, that'll be next.

BUFFETT: (Laughs.) No, what was done in the fall of 2008 was designed to save the American economy. It wasn't designed to save the banks, it wasn't designed to save me. It was designed to 309 million Americans and a good job was done. But the banks are the ones, you know, particularly I just named a few, they paid it back with huge interest. The government's made a lot of money on that. And to say that they should be paying for the fact that the government lost a lot, or may lose a lot of money in Freddie and Fannie and perhaps with the auto companies, it just doesn't make any sense to me.

BECKY: What about AIG, though? Goldman Sachs and a lot of the other banks did make a lot of money back from AIG. Is that a different category?

BUFFETT: Well, they got paid what they were owed, but so did millions of policy holders. I mean, if you look at AIG, AIG, primarily through its subsidiaries, but they had contracts with millions of people who were counting on getting paid on their life insurance, getting paid on annuities, getting paid on property and casualty claims. And the government's actions enabled AIG to live up to millions of contracts. And it makes them mad that they lived up to a good contract with Goldman Sachs, although Goldman was very protected. But I'm just not sure why - Goldman paid, I think, a billion-one for the warrants to buy them back. They are not the problem. The banks have generally done a pretty good job.

CARL QUINTANILLA: AIG, other insurance companies, Warren, likely to fall under that taxing category, people worry that the real fear is not just the feel-good measure that the tax will take but the distraction it will create in dealing with financial reform in a real way in this country.

BUFFETT: Yeah, and it's a popular tax to propose now, obviously. The American people love the idea of Goldman or AIG or anybody like that, those are bad names. They don't think so much about Freddie or Fannie which are that expensive and which Congress ran. But I just think a tax that's enacted with the idea that the headlines will be appealing and that a certain amount of vengeance will be achieved, I don't think that's the greatest form of tax policy.


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