Warren Buffett says pandemic’s impact still hard to predict


OMAHA, Neb. — Billionaire Warren Buffett says the one constant throughout the coronavirus pandemic has been that it has been difficult to predict how it would affect the economy, but clearly it has devastated many small businesses and individuals while most big companies have fared OK.

“The economic impact has been this extremely uneven thing where I don’t know how many but many hundreds of thousands or millions of small businesses have been hurt in a terrible way, but most of the big, big companies have overwhelmingly have done fine, unless they happen to be in cruise lines or, you know, or hotels or something,” Buffett said in an interview that aired on CNBC Tuesday night.

Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger touched on a variety of topics during the interview. Munger said China had the right approach to the pandemic by essentially shutting down the country for six weeks.

“That turned out to be exactly the right thing to do,” Munger said. “And they didn’t allow any contact. You picked up your groceries in a box in the apartment and that’s all the contact you had with anybody for six weeks. And, when it was all over, they kind of went back to work. It happened they did it exactly right.”

Munger also praised the financial regulations that Chinese regulators have put in place. For instance, he said China was right to clamp down on Ant Group, which is affiliated with billionaire Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group, when it forced the giant online payments firm to become a financial holding company that will be regulated more like a bank.

“I don’t want … all of the Chinese system, but I certainly would like to have the financial part of it in my own country,” Munger said.

Buffett and Munger both said U.S. regulators should do more to restrict the amount of gambling in financial markets by limiting the how much investors and banks can borrow on margin. They said that over the years Wall Street has found ways around the limits established after the Great Depression that the Federal Reserve put on how much people could borrow against stocks.

Having tougher rules on the amount of leverage investors can use would help avoid problems like the $5 billion charge Credit Suisse took this spring when American hedge fund Archegos Capital defaulted on margin calls, which are triggered when investors borrow using their stock portfolio as collateral and have to make up the balance required by banks when the share prices fall and the collateral is worth less.

“We learned a long time ago … that you can’t make a good deal with a bad person. Just forget it,” Buffett said. “Now, if you think you can draw up a contract that, that is going to work against a bad person, they’re gonna win.”

Munger said a number of companies acted foolishly in their dealings with Archegos “but Credit Suisse has managed to be the biggest fool of all.”

Buffett and Munger also reiterated their criticism of the Robinhood brokerage because they said it is encouraging average investors to speculate on stocks with options instead of making long-term investments.

“It’s a gambling parlor masquerading as a respectable business,” Munger said.

Robinhood has defended its practices in the past and said it is helping more people become invested in the markets.

The Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate that Buffett and Munger lead owns more than 90 companies, including Geico insurance, BNSF railroad, a number of major utilities and an assortment of manufacturing and retail firms. Berkshire also holds major stock investments in Apple, Bank of America, Coca-Cola and several other companies.

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