Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Warren Buffet: U S Capitalism in Crisis

The Berkshire Hathaway Corporation Annual Report 2005

Foreign Currencies
Berkshire owned about $21.4 billion of foreign exchange contracts at yearend, spread among 12 currencies. As I mentioned last year, holdings of this kind are a decided change for us. Before March 2002, neither Berkshire nor I had ever traded in currencies. But the evidence grows that our trade policies will put unremitting pressure on the dollar for many years to come – so since 2002 we’ve heeded that warning in setting our investment course. (As W.C. Fields once said when asked for a handout: “Sorry, son, all my money’s tied up in currency.”)

Be clear on one point: In no way does our thinking about currencies rest on doubts about America. We live in an extraordinarily rich country, the product of a system that values market economics, the rule of law and equality of opportunity. Our economy is far and away the strongest in the world and will continue to be. We are lucky to live here.

But as I argued in a November 10, 2003 article in Fortune, (available at berkshirehathaway.com), our country’s trade practices are weighing down the dollar. The decline in its value has already been substantial, but is nevertheless likely to continue. Without policy changes, currency markets could even become disorderly and generate spillover effects, both political and financial. No one knows whether these problems will materialize. But such a scenario is a far-from-remote possibility that policymakers should be considering now. Their bent, however, is to lean toward not-so-benign neglect: A 318-page Congressional study of the consequences of unremitting trade deficits was published in November 2000 and has been gathering dust ever since. The study was ordered after the deficit hit a then-alarming $263 billion in 1999; by last year it had risen to $618 billion.

Charlie and I, it should be emphasized, believe that true trade – that is, the exchange of goods and services with other countries – is enormously beneficial for both us and them. Last year we had $1.15 trillion of such honest-to-God trade and the more of this, the better. But, as noted, our country also purchased an additional $618 billion in goods and services from the rest of the world that was unreciprocated. That is a staggering figure and one that has important consequences.

The balancing item to this one-way pseudo-trade — in economics there is always an offset — is a transfer of wealth from the U.S. to the rest of the world. The transfer may materialize in the form of IOUs our private or governmental institutions give to foreigners, or by way of their assuming ownership of our assets, such as stocks and real estate. In either case, Americans end up owning a reduced portion of our country while non-Americans own a greater part. This force-feeding of American wealth to the rest of the world is now proceeding at the rate of $1.8 billion daily, an increase of 20% since I wrote you last year. Consequently, other countries and their citizens now own a net of about $3 trillion of the U.S. A decade ago their net ownership was negligible.

The mention of trillions numbs most brains. A further source of confusion is that the current account deficit (the sum of three items, the most important by far being the trade deficit) and our national budget deficit are often lumped as “twins.” They are anything but. They have different causes and different consequences.

A budget deficit in no way reduces the portion of the national pie that goes to Americans. As long as other countries and their citizens have no net ownership of the U.S., 100% of our country’s output belongs to our citizens under any budget scenario, even one involving a huge deficit.

As a rich “family” awash in goods, Americans will argue through their legislators as to how government should redistribute the national output – that is who pays taxes and who receives governmental benefits. If “entitlement” promises from an earlier day have to be reexamined, “family members” will angrily debate among themselves as to who feels the pain. Maybe taxes will go up; maybe promises will be modified; maybe more internal debt will be issued. But when the fight is finished, all of the family’s huge pie remains available for its members, however it is divided. No slice must be sent abroad.

Large and persisting current account deficits produce an entirely different result. As time passes, and as claims against us grow, we own less and less of what we produce. In effect, the rest of the world enjoys an ever-growing royalty on American output. Here, we are like a family that consistently overspends its income. As time passes, the family finds that it is working more and more for the “finance company” and less for itself.

Should we continue to run current account deficits comparable to those now prevailing, the net ownership of the U.S. by other countries and their citizens a decade from now will amount to roughly $11 trillion. And, if foreign investors were to earn only 5% on that net holding, we would need to send a net of $.55 trillion of goods and services abroad every year merely to service the U.S. investments then held by foreigners. At that date, a decade out, our GDP would probably total about $18 trillion (assuming low inflation, which is far from a sure thing). Therefore, our U.S. “family” would then be delivering 3% of its annual output to the rest of the world simply as tribute for the overindulgences of the past. In this case, unlike that involving budget deficits, the sons would truly pay for the sins of their fathers.

This annual royalty paid the world – which would not disappear unless the U.S. massively underconsumed and began to run consistent and large trade surpluses – would undoubtedly produce significant political unrest in the U.S. Americans would still be living very well, indeed better than now because of the growth in our economy. But they would chafe at the idea of perpetually paying tribute to their creditors and owners abroad. A country that is now aspiring to an “Ownership Society” will not find happiness in – and I’ll use hyperbole here for emphasis – a “Sharecropper’s Society.” But that’s precisely where our trade policies, supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, are taking us.

Many prominent U.S. financial figures, both in and out of government, have stated that our current-account deficits cannot persist. For instance, the minutes of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee of June 29-30, 2004 say: “The staff noted that outsized external deficits could not be sustained indefinitely.” But, despite the constant handwringing by luminaries, they offer no substantive suggestions to tame the burgeoning imbalance.

In the article I wrote for Fortune 16 months ago, I warned that “a gently declining dollar would not provide the answer.” And so far it hasn’t. Yet policymakers continue to hope for a “soft landing,” meanwhile counseling other countries to stimulate (read “inflate”) their economies and Americans to save more. In my view these admonitions miss the mark: There are deep-rooted structural problems that will cause America to continue to run a huge current-account deficit unless trade policies either change materially or the dollar declines by a degree that could prove unsettling to financial markets.

Proponents of the trade status quo are fond of quoting Adam Smith: “What is prudence in the conduct of every family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom. If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage.”

I agree. Note, however, that Mr. Smith’s statement refers to trade of product for product, not of wealth for product as our country is doing to the tune of $.6 trillion annually. Moreover, I am sure that he would never have suggested that “prudence” consisted of his “family” selling off part of its farm every day in order to finance its overconsumption. Yet that is just what the “great kingdom” called the United States is doing.

If the U.S. was running a $.6 trillion current-account surplus, commentators worldwide would violently condemn our policy, viewing it as an extreme form of “mercantilism” – a long-discredited economic strategy under which countries fostered exports, discouraged imports, and piled up treasure. I would condemn such a policy as well. But, in effect if not in intent, the rest of the world is practicing mercantilism in respect to the U.S., an act made possible by our vast store of assets and our pristine credit history. Indeed, the world would never let any other country use a credit card denominated in its own currency to the insatiable extent we are employing ours. Presently, most foreign investors are sanguine: they may view us as spending junkies, but they know we are rich junkies as well.

Our spendthrift behavior won’t, however, be tolerated indefinitely. And though it’s impossible to forecast just when and how the trade problem will be resolved, it’s improbable that the resolution will foster an increase in the value of our currency relative to that of our trading partners.

We hope the U.S. adopts policies that will quickly and substantially reduce the current-account deficit. True, a prompt solution would likely cause Berkshire to record losses on its foreign-exchange contracts. But Berkshire’s resources remain heavily concentrated in dollar-based assets, and both a strong dollar and a low-inflation environment are very much in our interest.

If you wish to keep abreast of trade and currency matters, read The Financial Times. This London-based paper has long been the leading source for daily international financial news and now has an excellent American edition. Both its reporting and commentary on trade are first-class.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

And, again, our usual caveat: macro-economics is a tough game in which few people, Charlie and I included, have demonstrated skill. We may well turn out to be wrong in our currency judgments. (Indeed, the fact that so many pundits now predict weakness for the dollar makes us uneasy.) If so, our mistake will be very public. The irony is that if we chose the opposite course, leaving all of Berkshire’s assets in dollars even as they declined significantly in value, no one would notice our mistake.

John Maynard Keynes said in his masterful The General Theory: “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” (Or, to put it in less elegant terms, lemmings as a class may be derided but never does an individual lemming get criticized.) From a reputational standpoint, Charlie and I run a clear risk with our foreign-exchange commitment. But we believe in managing Berkshire as if we owned 100% of it ourselves. And, were that the case, we would not be following a dollar-only policy.

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Buffett wants action
Monday, March 7, 2005
Associated Press

OMAHA — Billionaire investor Warren Buffett says he's on the prowl this year for new companies after lamenting last year's failure to make multibillion dollar acquisitions that would boost its earnings.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. is hunting acquisitions priced between $5-billion and $20-billion, CEO Buffett said in Berkshire's annual report.

In his 40th annual report, the man known as the “Oracle in Omaha” expressed dismay that he failed to buy more companies in 2004.

“My hope was to make several multibillion dollar acquisitions that would add new and significant streams of earnings to the many we already have,” the 74-year-old wrote in the report, released Saturday. “But I have struck out.”

But Mr. Buffett did have a consolation prize. Berkshire Hathaway posted a gain in net worth of $8.3-billion in 2004, which increased the per-share book value — assets minus liabilities — by 10.5 per cent. That was keeping nearly in line with the S&P 500, which grew by 10.9 per cent. That latter growth meant a “remarkable year for the stock market” because it came close to the S&P 500's annual return of 11.2 per cent, he said.

In 2003, the company saw a 21 per cent increase in book value while the S&P 500 grew by 28.7 per cent.

Mr. Buffett and vice chairman Charlie Munger are going to have to work hard to find new assets, said Steve Kaplan, a professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. Like the past year, 2005 will prove a seller's market, Mr. Kaplan said, adding that activity in mergers and acquisitions will remain heavy.

“He won't find anything this year either,” Mr. Kaplan said. “Since he likes to buy things cheap, it's harder to find.”

While Berkshire's profit fell 10 per cent from 2003 to $7.31-billion, its fourth-quarter results were strong, with earnings climbing to $3.34-billion, up some 40 per cent from the same period in 2003.

Berkshire ended the year with $43-billion of cash equivalents, something Buffett called “not a happy position.” In 2003, Berkshire had nearly $36-billion and the year before that, about $12.7-billion.

Mr. Buffett was mum on the subject of an investigation of alleged bid-rigging and price-fixing in the insurance industry by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Buffett received a subpoena in January and has said he would co-operate. His insurance holdings include auto insurer GEICO.

Mr. Buffett has made himself the world's second richest man — and many of his stockholders into-millionaires — by buying companies in a wide variety of industries including insurance, furniture, restaurants, candy and newspapers. But he wants more for the holding company.

Mr. Buffett laid out his requirements for a potential company to take over. He wants it friendly, with management in place and an asking price known at the outset. He prefers to pay, of course, in cash.

Mr. Kaplan found it noteworthy that Mr. Buffett expressed approval for two federal reforms that have affected how businesses run — namely the establishment of whistleblower hot lines and allowing boards of directors to meet without CEOs present.

Mr. Buffett said he's sat on 19 boards and having a CEO absent — especially when the board was contemplating a change in that position — surely would have meant for more efficient business.

And whistleblower lines, while many of them referring to the hygiene of co-workers, Buffett said, have alerted him to problems that would have otherwise gone unknown.

“Berkshire would be more valuable to me today if I had put in a whistleblower line decades ago,” Mr. Buffett wrote.