NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann: Oracle's message of economic hope

Warren Buffett gets ready to deliver message of unbridled optimism to 40,000 people at firm's annual meeting.
Warren Buffett does not see the American gloom being referred to by presidential candidates. Photo / Getty Images
Warren Buffett does not see the American gloom being referred to by presidential candidates. Photo / Getty Images

In the thick of a bitter and divisive US presidential campaign, 85-year-old billionaire Warren Buffett will this week take to the stage in front of 40,000 people in a packed Omaha stadium to deliver a message of unbridled optimism.

In sharp contrast to presidential candidates who talk of decay and promise to return America to some kind of historic golden era, Buffett argues there has never been a better time to be alive in America.

"The babies being born today are the luckiest crop to date," he wrote in his recent annual letter to shareholders in his US$255 billion ($372 billion) investment company Berkshire Hathaway - owner of some of America's largest insurers as well as significant stakes in Coca Cola, Kraft Heinz, IBM and Mars Corporation.

Buffett is often characterised as one of the good-guy capitalists. He's a supporter of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton with a strong track record on social issues.

His letter addresses the risk that the big economic gains, which he expects America to make in the next decades, will not be shared equitably.

"Though the pie to be shared by the next generation will be far larger than today's, how it will be divided will remain fiercely contentious.

"The good news, however, is that even members of the "losing" sides will almost certainly enjoy - as they should - far more goods and services in the future than they have in the past," he writes.

Buffett is a believer in the power of markets to create wealth, because he has watched it happen over the past 70 years.

He started in business at just 15, putting a secondhand pinball machine in a barber shop and expanding into seven more before selling the business.

"Nothing rivals the market system in producing what people want - nor, even more so, in delivering what people don't yet know they want."

Buffett is no new age liberal, he is very much a man of the 1950s. He has a patriotic streak.

"For 240 years it has been a terrible mistake to bet against America and now [is] no time to start," he writes as he concludes his annual blog letter.

But he also offers a friendly reminder of a more folksy and down- to-earth time for both business and society - plain talking and honest.

He is known as the "Oracle of Omaha" and his investment success speaks for itself.

To quote Wikipedia: "Berkshire Hathaway has averaged an annual growth in book value of 19.7 per cent to its shareholders for the last 49 years (compared to 9.8 per cent from the S&P 500 with dividends included for the same period) while employing large amounts of capital, and minimal debt."

Buffett claims no great predictive powers. He maintains an unashamedly optimistic bias and a disciplined, profitable methodology.

"I know over time the market is going to go up," he told CNBC recently. "But in terms of what's going to happen in a day or a week or a month I never felt that I knew. I've never felt like I needed to."

I am very much looking forward to hearing Buffett speak at the annual general meeting this week.

This week I have the privilege of joining the Pie Funds team on their annual visit to Omaha for the conference, to be held at the weekend. It has been called Woodstock for investors but as it is still going strong in 2016, that should probably now be the Coachella.

The joy of all that mad American enthusiasm for a big event will be something to witness in itself. And the dose of optimism about the world's largest economy will be welcome.

We need America back in action to balance a Chinese economic slowdown and a stuttering European situation that still seems too sick to describe as a recovery.

If America gets back in top gear the global economy will surge. That would soon inject some overdue inflationary pressure into Western economies.

There'll be upsides and downsides to that too, but it will enable a rebalancing that the New Zealand economy could use right now.

Will it happen? At least we can be sure Warren Buffett is betting on it.

Warren Buffett

• Born in Omaha, Nebraska, 1930.

• Current net worth: US$67 billion.

• Rejected by Harvard Business School (Masters from Colombia University).

• Investment company Berkshire Hathaway has assets of US$552 billion and equity of US$255 billion.

• Annual rate of return to shareholders - 20 per cent over 49 years.

• Owns significant stakes in Coca Cola, Mars Corp, American Express and IBM although biggest assets are in insurance.

In his own words

• "Nothing rivals the market system in producing what people want - nor, even more so, in delivering what people don't yet know they want."

• "The babies being born today are the luckiest crop to date."

• "Though the pie to be shared by the next generation will be far larger than today's, how it will be divided will remain fiercely contentious."

- NZ Herald

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