“There is no comparison between fear and greed,” Warren Buffett is telling me over the phone from Omaha. “Fear is instant, pervasive and intense. Greed is slower. Fear hits,” he exclaims. It’s Tuesday August 9th, a little less than an hour after the Federal Reserve announced it would hold interest rates at close to zero for two more years and the stock market has gone into yet another major spasm—up at that moment between two hugely down days.
For us mere mortals, this summer’s stock market meltdown has a grinding, Groundhog Day feel to it, as in: ‘Oh no, not again…” But for Buffett it’s invigorating. Today he’s his usual chipper self, saying he’s “never been better.” And why not? As Buffett reminds me, “The lower things go, the more I buy. We are in the business of buying,” [both securities and, if he can find them, big companies.] (And no, he won’t tell me what he’s picking up on the cheap.) Buffett always makes his job sound so easy, but of course it isn’t. All you need is a multi-billion dollar war chest, nerves of titanium, and a brilliant, analytical mind. Not a very big group there.
I’m calling Buffett to ask him about his company’s businesses, because as a diversified conglomerate or holding company, Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) is a fairly reflective proxy of the overall economy. But first I had to ask him about S&P lowering the outlook for Berkshire Hathaway debt (which is rated AA+) from stable to negative in the wake of the credit down grade of U.S. Treasuries.
So what about it Mr. B? “They said some time ago that if they changed the ratings on governments they would lower the outlook on certain insurance companies because they own a lot of governments. [Buffett reportedly said that Berkshire holds more than $40 billion of its cash in short term Treasuries.] So as a derivative move I understand it, but I don’t agree with it because I don’t agree with the Treasury downgrade. U.S. Treasuries are still triple-A in that there is no question that we will repay the interest and the principal. Every contract will be repaid. So our bonds are triple-A. Our currency, the dollar, is not triple-A. Our bonds are.”
So what about the health of his businesses? “Up until right now, all of our businesses have been coming back—even Europe isn’t doing that badly—except for businesses relating to home construction which is on its rear end. [Importantly Buffett did say that if events continue like the last few weeks it will change things.] Business has been coming back steadily, even more than the mood of the public.” Of course, some of this talk may be Buffett trying to jawbone that public mood, but remember Buffett is a voracious consumer of his businesses’ numbers and wouldn’t be one to misrepresent them.
Two examples: A Berkshire subsidiary based in Israel, Iscar, which makes cutting tools for machines, is showing growth, “quarter after quarter,” Buffett says, adding that this isn’t because of market share gains. “It means that the machines are operating more.” Buffett has another company, TTI, which sells tiny electronic parts. “It’s like selling jelly beans, but we sell billions of dollars of them and it is up.” And there’s more too: “NetJets’ miles flown by customers are up. Rolex watches — we are the largest seller of Rolexes in the U.S. — are up 27% this year,” he says.
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Ah, but is Berkshire hiring anyone? We hear so much about businesses being in good shape because they are so productive. Here things are mixed. Every business looks for productivity gains every year, Buffett notes. Shaw, Berkshire’s carpet manufacturer, let 400 people go over the last month or so, and is down some 6,000 employees overall, Buffett says. Shaw’s business, of course, is closely tied to the beleaguered homebuilding business. “But when that business comes back, we will add thousands of employees some day.” On the flip side, Berkshire’s giant railroad, Burlington Northern is adding some 3,500 jobs this year as business has picked up. And insurance company GEICO has added 700 jobs, “but we’re gaining [market] share there,” he says.
So the insurance business is good, I ask Buffett? Not exactly.
“Auto has been good, but catastrophes have been bad. International hit us in the first quarter, and domestic in the second.” By that Buffett means the tragedy in Japan and earthquakes in New Zealand, in particular the second Christchurch quake which cased as much damage relative to New Zealand’s GDP as ten Hurricane Katrina’s. “We set up a reserve of $40 million for death related losses in the first quarter, $5 million for New Zealand and $35 million for Japan. Natural catastrophes that produce life insurance losses of this order are very unusual,” Buffett says. The domestic debacles were the worst tornado season in history, which included the storms in Alabama and Joplin, Missouri. And Buffett says the elements continue to be most unkind: A freak hailstorm on Long Island, NY on August 1st, led to 15,000 claims worth $60 million, just in auto claims.
And so what does Buffett think about the Fed’s move to hold rates low that has the market all in a tizzy that Tuesday? “I don’t really think about things like that,” he reminds me. I ask him if he sees anything in his data stream that is giving him cause to worry about another downturn. “Not yet, but it would take a little while to show up.”
In the meantime, Buffett is looking to buy stocks — oh, and apparently to sell Berkshire bonds too. Berkshire is reportedly taking advantage of record low rates and issuing bonds to raise dirt-cheap capital. For Buffett right now at least, this is not a time for fear. This is a time for action.