Tags: warren | buffett | housing | berkshire

Buffett Sees Housing Rebound, Warns About High Health Costs

Monday, 01 March 2010 07:19 AM

Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett said Monday that the U.S. economy has passed the worst of its troubles, but faces an uneven recovery as consumers keep a tight rein on spending.

Buffett, in his annual letter to Berkshire shareholders released over the weekend, said "residential housing problems should largely be behind us" within about a year as supply falls into line with demand, though "prices will remain far below 'bubble' levels."

Buffett, who in last year's letter said the economy would be in "shambles" in 2009, this year struck a more optimistic note.

"We got past Pearl Harbor," Buffett said on Monday on the CNBC business news channel. "We will win the war, and it's going slightly our way."

Buffett also used his annual letter to Berkshire shareholders to lambaste financial industry chief executive officers and directors for bad risk management, suggesting that shareholders have borne too much of the burden of recent massive government bailouts.

Meanwhile, Buffett said business remains "slow" in many areas, including at his Berkshire Hathaway, as consumers adopt a more cautious mindset about spending.

He also said consumers must fend off "out of control" healthcare costs, which he called "a national emergency" and a "tapeworm" eating at the economy.

Even as the economy improves, Buffett said it may not make stocks more attractive to buy. Buffett lamented not buying more aggressively last March, when stocks were hitting decade lows.

"My enthusiasm for stocks is in direct proportion to how far they go down," he said. "Stocks are a lot less attractive now than they were a year ago."

Buffett spoke two days after Berkshire published its annual report, including Buffett's widely read shareholder letter.

Full-year profit at the Omaha, Neb.-based company rose 61 percent. Berkshire has about 80 operating businesses that sell things from car insurance, carpeting and ice cream to industrial components, paint and underwear.

"There's a few businesses that have really had a fair amount of bounce," while others show no improvement, he said. "It's getting better, but at a very, very slow pace."

Buffett said President Barack Obama is doing a good job in restoring the country from difficult conditions. "I give Obama high marks," he said.

A $26.5 billion takeover last month of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., the second-largest U.S. railroad, cost Berkshire the last of its "triple-A" ratings from major credit agencies.

Buffett raised about half of the $15.9 billion of cash used for the takeover, Berkshire's largest, in credit markets.

He said the downgrades had virtually no impact on Berkshire, perhaps costing just a few hundredths of a percentage point in extra yield on its debt.

"I think we deserve a quadruple-A" rating, which does not exist, he joked.

Buffett also said there remain three potential candidates to succeed him as chief executive, including one ready to take over immediately if needed.

He praised David Sokol, who chairs Berkshire's MidAmerican Energy unit and whom he installed to slash debt and restore profit at the troubled NetJets plane leasing unit. "What Dave has done there is miraculous," Buffett said.

Buffett also praised Ajit Jain, a 25-year Berkshire veteran who runs much of its insurance business and talks with Buffett each day. He called Jain "incredibly valuable" to Berkshire, and said he is responsible for "a huge part" of its success.

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Monday, 01 March 2010 07:19 AM
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