The Berkshire Hathaway CEO shared his insights -- and a respectable number of laughs -- with an audience of businesswomen.
By Megan Barnett and Nin-Hai Tseng
FORTUNE — Warren Buffett shared his optimism on stage with Fortune senior editor-at-large and longtime friend Carol Loomis at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif. on Tuesday. He opened with the revelation that all of Berkshire Hathaway’s brk.a businesses — with the exception of those related to the housing market — are enjoying growth, despite the sluggish economic recovery. The railroad businesses are especially strong — last week they carried more cargo in any week in the past three years.
Housing is the main driver behind the stubbornly high unemployment rate, he said. “Today, we’re better off on housing than we were yesterday,” he said, admitting that he doesn’t know how long before it really comes back with any significance. “The rest of the country is doing pretty darned well,” he said.
Globally, however, Europe stands to wreak further havoc on global markets without “strong decisive action,” which Buffet says has been lacking.
He recalls the U.S. being on the “edge of the abyss three years ago” during the wake of the financial crisis. Unlike European officials, the U.S. showed “they were going to do whatever it takes” to keep the economy from a full-on collapse.
“I believed at the time that our government had the ability and I believed it had the will. In Europe the ability will at some point depends on somebody having the ability to print some money … so it’s a very difficult problem.” Buffett, always the optimist, believes that the future is bright for Europe — in 10 years Europeans will be better off than they are today.
It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to taxes, the subject for which Buffett has been a target of criticism recently as the so-called “Buffett tax” proposed by President Obama would raise the tax rate on the richest Americans. “A boyhood dream of mine, to have a tax named after me,” Buffett quipped. He maintained his position that the disparity between the rich and average Americans has exploded in the past 25 years. He concedes that the $20 billion or so that would be raised by his proposal won’t go far enough to fix the deficit, but it will help make the tax obligations more equitable.
As for his critics, Buffett didn’t skip a beat. When Loomis asked about the Wall Street Journal editorial board’s request for Buffett to release his income tax returns to the public, Buffett said he’d gladly do so if News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch did it with him.
When asked about the role of women in the corporate boardroom today, Buffett said that we’ve made great progress but that the disparity is still too great. But again, he’s optimistic. Think of the great progress this country made before the 1920s, “and we wasted half our talent.”
Check out our additional coverage from Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit.