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Buffett: The economy has ‘fallen off a cliff’

Billionaire Warren Buffett said unemployment will likely climb a lot higher depending upon how effective the nation’s policies are, but he remains optimistic over the long term.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Billionaire Warren Buffett remains confident that America’s best days are ahead, but he says the nation likely will face higher unemployment and eventually inflation because of the current economic crisis.

Buffett said the nation’s leaders need to emphasize a consistent message, and they should support President Barack Obama’s efforts to repair the economy because fear is dominating Americans’ behavior.

Buffett said the economy has basically followed the worst-case scenario he envisioned six months ago.

“It’s fallen off a cliff,” Buffett said Monday during a live appearance on cable network CNBC. “Not only has the economy slowed down a lot, but people have really changed their habits like I haven’t seen.”

Buffett said the changes are reflected in the results of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s subsidiaries. He said Berkshire’s jewelry companies have suffered, but more people have been willing to switch to Geico to save money on car insurance. The three-hour-long interview aired from another Berkshire subsidiary that has been hampered by the economy, the Nebraska Furniture Mart store in Omaha.

He predicted that unemployment will climb a lot higher before the recession is done, but he also reiterated his optimistic long-term view: “Everything will be all right. We do have the greatest economic machine that man has ever created.”

Fear and confusion have been driving consumer and investor behavior in recent months, Buffett said.

The nation’s leaders need to clear up the confusion before anyone will become more confident, and he said all 535 members of Congress should stop the partisan bickering about solutions. He said politicians should also stop trying to use the current economic crisis to force through other policy changes.

“We ought to defer most of the things that get people riled up,” Buffett said.

Buffett said he believes patriotic Republicans and Democrats will realize the nation is engaged in an economic war.

“What is required is a commander in chief that’s looked at like a commander in chief in a time of war,” Buffett said.

Whatever the government does to help the economy will likely benefit some people who made poor financial decisions, but Buffett said Americans should realize that everyone is in the same boat.

“The people that behaved well are no doubt going to find themselves taking care of the people who didn’t behave well,” Buffett said.

The current efforts to help revive the economy are likely to produce inflation that could be worse than what the country suffered in the late 1970s, Buffett said.

But even though the nation will have to pay for current policies with future inflation, Buffett said, the U.S. government still needs to act.

“We’re in a big war, and we’re going to use money to fight it,” he said.

Maintaining faith in the nation’s banking system will be important to restoring the economy’s health, Buffett added. He said President Barack Obama needs to make it very clear that consumers won’t lose money in banks even if more fail.

“If you don’t trust where you have your money, the world stops,” Buffett said.

Most banks are in good shape, Buffett said, and even some of the troubled banks will be able to remedy their problems over time by reducing dividends and collecting the difference between interest payments they receive on loans and the interest they pay on deposits.

“The banking system largely will cure itself,” Buffett said.

A little over a week ago, Buffett released his annual letter to shareholders describing the worst of his 44 years at the helm of Berkshire. The Omaha, Neb.-based company reported sharply lower profit because of its largely unrealized $7.5 billion investment and derivative losses.

Overall, Berkshire’s 2008 profit of $4.99 billion, or $3,224 per Class A share, was down 62 percent from $13.21 billion, or $8,548 per share, in 2007.

Berkshire’s fourth-quarter numbers were even worse. Buffett’s company reported net income of $117 million, or $76 per share, down 96 percent from $2.95 billion, or $1,904 per share, a year earlier.

Buffett said he doesn’t regret writing a commentary in the fall encouraging people to buy U.S. stocks, but he joked that in hindsight he wishes he’d waited a few months to publish the piece. Since that commentary appeared on Oct. 17, the Dow Jones industrial average has fallen from 8,852.22 to close at 6,626.94 on Friday.

Buffett stands by his overall advice that owning stocks over time will profit people greater than so-called safe investments.

“Overall, equities are going to do far better than U.S. government bonds at these prices,” he said.

Buffett said he doesn’t regret investing $8 billion of Berkshire’s money in investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and conglomerate General Electric Co. last fall. Both companies gave Berkshire preferred shares paying 10 percent interest that Buffett said he doesn’t think he could get now.

Buffett also said on CNBC:

  • That General Motors Corp. needs a new business plan to survive because its costs are too high, but it’s difficult to predict how a solution will be reached. “You are in a terrible, terrible time period for the car makers every place.”
  • Berkshire has made several large investments over the past year and reduced its cash on hand to $24.3 billion at the end of 2008. Buffett said that means Berkshire will likely write fewer insurance policies on catastrophic events in 2009 because he wants to make sure the company always has at least $10 billion on hand. “My job is to be absolutely sure Berkshire doesn’t need help from anyone in the worst of times,” Buffett said.
  • Any deal negotiated last summer made the sellers very happy and the buyers unhappy today. That’s part of why Buffett said Dow Chemical Co.’s $15 billion bid to buy rival chemical maker Rohm & Haas Co. has not been consummated. “The world has changed like nobody ever believed it would,” he said.

But Buffett said the $3 billion Berkshire committed to the Dow deal remains solid if the two chemical companies can agree on how to close the deal.

Berkshire owns a diverse mix of more than 60 companies, including insurance, furniture, carpet, jewelry, restaurants and utility businesses. And it has major investments in such companies as Wells Fargo & Co. and Coca-Cola Co.

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