BECKY: Welcome back to SQUAWK BOX. We are live in Omaha this morning at the World Herald Freedom Center. This is the printing presses for the Omaha World Herald. We’re speaking to Warren Buffett, who’s the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.
And, Warren, for people who are just tuning in, we should tell them we’re here because the Omaha World Herald is an acquisition that Berkshire Hathaway recently made.
BUFFETT: Yeah. In December of last year, just a couple months ago, Berkshire bought the Omaha World Herald. I’ve been reading it since I was about six. I study these things a while before I write a check and, you know, it’s a terrific newspaper. I’ve read it every day, you know, throughout my lifetime, and it was employee-owned and there were some cash problems in terms of redemption of stock that was built into the system, so it become advisable to look for a new owner, and I’m glad they looked for me.
BECKY: Someone did write in and wanted to know if you had any say over the editorial content.
BUFFETT: Zero, zero. No, my guess is that next year that they will probably endorse somebody for president, and I’ll probably vote for the other guy. But who knows?
BECKY: OK. Let’s get back to the economy. We have talked an awful lot about how you see things going along. And in Berkshire’s 70 businesses or 70 some businesses, you have continued to see slow and steady gains. Is there a sign in any of those businesses yet that there really will be a turn in housing or is that just something your gut tells you at this point?
BUFFETT: It — if you look — if you really were looking for it you might find some little flicker someplace. But the important thing is if you take our five largest businesses, and they’re big.
BUFFETT: They all — you know the aggregate earning are over $9 billion. And they’re basic businesses, you know, whether it’s a…
BECKY: Outside of insurance.
BUFFETT: Outside of insurance, every one of them set an earnings record last year. I think it’s pretty likely that every one of them sets an earnings record this year. I mean, these — you know, they earned over $9 billion pretax last year. So these are big businesses. And, you know, the people — we’re hiring in those businesses. People don’t have to worry about their jobs in those businesses. So it — the economy is coming back every place except home construction, and it will come back in home construction, I can guarantee you that. I just don’t know when.
BECKY: There’s an impression that businesses are not investing in the United States, and that’s something a lot of people have said. But you point out in your annual letter that Berkshire is spending a lot of money on capital expenditures, $8 1/2 billion in 2011?
BUFFETT: Yeah. We spend — we spend 8.2 billion in — which was an all-time record by — it broke our record by $2 billion. Ninety-five percent of that was in the United States. And that 8.2 billion we spent last year, we’ll break that record again this year, and it’ll almost all be spent in the United States. There are all kinds of opportunities in the United States. And we have the cash to take advantage of those opportunities, and American business has the cash to take advantage of the opportunities. There is — there’s not a shortage of investment funds in the United States in any way, shape or form, and there’s not a shortage of opportunities.
BECKY: Do you believe the recent jobs numbers that we’ve been getting a look at, that indicate that hiring is starting to pick up a little bit and the unemployment rate is starting to come down?
BUFFETT: Yeah. Hiring is picking up but — it’s picked up in our businesses unless they’re related to housing construction. I pointed out in the report our housing businesses are down from their peak of 58,000 people to 45,000 people. When housing comes back, we’ll be hiring at those five companies. But a lot of jobs that aren’t called construction jobs in the United States are tied to construction. So when we go down 8,000 people or so at our carpet business, those are not called construction jobs, but they’re related to construction. Same thing with insulation and other things.
BECKY: You know, Warren, we talked to the CEO of the Gallup organization, and he pointed out some things that they’ve seen in their weekly and monthly polls that they run. They’re constantly talking to people. His concern is that we will see the jobless rate or the unemployment rate pick back up to about 9 percent when we get the next monthly report for jobs. Would that surprise you?
BUFFETT: Well, it would surprise me. But what counts is over the next year, two years and three years. We’ve been coming back. I mean, we — you know, it was — it was September of 2008 when I was on CNBC. I called it an economic Pearl Harbor. I’d never used that term before. I mean, that — it isn’t that I come up with that all the time. I mean, we went through something that this country hasn’t seen before in the way of a financial panic. The country almost stopped. And that financial panic bled over into the general economy very quickly and very severely. And we’ve been coming back now for three years from that, and we continue to come back. But I will predict that our businesses will have more people working for them at the end of this year than at the start of the year.
BECKY: Joe, you have a question, too?
JOE: I do. I’m amazed at how much mail we’re getting on a lot of this. Go back one more second, Warren, and we’ll get back to this current line of thinking. This gentleman writes in, pretty interesting, “Why would I ever consider sending more money to Washington, given the inept policies and investments of our government? Would Warren continue to send money into a business black hole if it had a similar track record?” And I was thinking, if the government was a business and Berkshire was looking at it, there’s no way Berkshire would even take a 1 percent stake in the government with their track record of investments. And I’ve gotten you to admit in the past that one of the reasons you think the Gates Foundation will do a lot better with your 50 or 60 billion is because even charities have a better — a much better reputation for watching how money is spend and for doing more good. So with all that in mind, can you at least see how someone might be sort of