Buffett: European concerns, US housing woes linger

JOSH FUNK - AP Business Writer
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FILE - In this May 2, 2011 file photo, Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway gestures during an interview, in Omaha, Neb. Buffett said Monday, Nov. 14, 2011, his company bought $10.7 billion of IBM stock this year, about a 5.6 percent stake. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

OMAHA, Nebraska (AP) — Billionaire investor Warren Buffett says Europe's debt concerns and the anemic U.S. home construction business will still to hurt the economy even though many businesses are performing well.

Buffett told CNBC on Monday that the recent leadership changes in Italy and Greece should help, but investors are losing confidence in the euro. And Buffett said Europe doesn't have anyone with the authority to take the measures needed to defend the currency.

Stopping a run on a currency is difficult, he said.

When the U.S. economy began to contract in late 2008, the Federal Reserve and Treasury were willing to do whatever it took to revive business. But Buffett said no one in Europe has comparable authority to the Federal Reserve.

"They have a situation where they found a fundamental flaw in that they can't print money," said Buffett, who is chairman and CEO of the conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Buffett said during an event to raise money for one of his favorite charities, Girls Inc., that he thinks Europe will be fine 10 years from now, but he doesn't know whether Europe will be past its problems in 10 months.

Buffett, however, said he doesn't think Europe's debt problems will have a lasting effect on the U.S. economy.

He said much of the American economy is performing well, although businesses related to residential home construction are struggling because of the oversupply of homes.

"You have a huge segment of the U.S. economy that's doing quite well, and you have a segment that's in a depression," Buffett said.

Berkshire owns roughly 80 businesses, and Buffett uses reports from those companies to gain insight into the economy. He said several of Berkshire's biggest subsidiaries, such as Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, will post record years. But Berkshire's housing-related businesses, like Acme Brick and Shaw Carpet, are still struggling.

But Buffett said he doesn't think the U.S. housing market needs more stimulus from either Congress or the Federal Reserve. He said what's needed is for more households to be created and that will happen over time.

"It doesn't solve itself as fast as people like, but it does solve itself," Buffett said.

Buffett said he met informally with officials from the Securities and Exchange Commission in June to answer questions related to Berkshire's $9 billion purchase of specialty chemical maker Lubrizol earlier this year.

That deal generated headlines in the spring after it was revealed that former Berkshire executive David Sokol had bought nearly 100,000 Lubrizol shares for about $100 apiece in early January, when he knew Lubrizol's board had been discussing a possible Berkshire acquisition. Sokol resigned after disclosing his trades to Berkshire.

Buffett said he and Berkshire officials cooperated with the SEC, but he doesn't know what government investigators are planning. Buffett has called Sokol's actions unethical and inexcusable.

Sokol has denied any wrongdoing in the Lubrizol deal, and he says he left Berkshire to start his own firm.

The 81-year-old Buffett told the crowd at the Girls Inc. fundraiser that he has no plans to retire because he can't think of anything more fun than running Berkshire.

"I don't even know how to spell the word," Buffett joked about retirement.

Most of the questions Buffett received at the midday event came from girls who are members of Girls Inc. The nonprofit provides educational and recreational programs for girls.

Buffett said he thinks America has come a long way in leveling the playing field for women and people of different races, but more work needs to be done to equalize the opportunities for everyone.

"We really want to get everyone the same starting line," Buffett said.

Buffett, the longtime Democrat, was also asked about presidential politics.

Buffett said his vision for the country's future is similar to the president's. But he said he wishes President Barack Obama would receive more cooperation.

"I admire what he is doing, and I will vote for him again," Buffett said.

Earlier Monday, Buffett said on CNBC that he thinks former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is most likely to win the Republican presidential primary.



Berkshire Hathaway Inc.: http://www.berkshirehathaway.com