Buffett says US economy still inching ahead
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Billionaire investor Warren Buffett said Wednesday that the global economy is definitely slowing because of continued problems in Europe and the decline in Asia.
But he said that the U.S. economy is still improving modestly and business will improve regardless of who wins the presidential election.
Buffett said that while the U.S. economy is outperforming those in Europe and Asia, American businesses would be performing better if leaders would address the nation's fiscal problems.
"We're still inching ahead, but we're inching," said Buffett, who addressed a variety of topics during a two-hour appearance on CNBC Wednesday.
The head of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. said he gets a sense of the economy's direction from reports he gets from subsidiaries of the Omaha-based conglomerate. Its holdings include the BNSF railroad, Clayton Homes and a large real estate brokerage.
Buffett said he thinks the economy will improve no matter whether President Barack Obama or Republican nominee Mitt Romney wins although he supports Obama. Buffett said he thinks the biggest differences between the two men are on social issues and who they would appoint as judges.
"I think the economy will get better under either one of them," Buffett said.
Buffett said the U.S. housing industry is starting to rebound, but it is still well off its peak. Buffett says Clayton is selling 10 percent to 15 percent more manufactured homes and Berkshire's real estate brokers are handling 15 percent more transactions.
He said the housing recovery will help hiring eventually.
General Electric Co. CEO Jeff Immelt joined Buffett for part of the interview. Both men were in Columbus, Ohio, for an Ohio State University event focused on mid-sized businesses. Immelt said the overall economic trends continue to be positive, but business is volatile in the aftermath of the recession.
"I think if you're out there hustling you can find business," Immelt said.
The GE boss encouraged investors to consider the long-term positive trends. Immelt said his company has a $200 billion backlog of business currently.
But Immelt said he thinks there would be more investment in the United States if the nation's leaders would address the so-called fiscal cliff of automatic tax increases and spending cuts that could be triggered at the start of the new year.
Buffett said he thinks the solution is obvious to all the nation's leaders, but action in Washington, D.C., is on hold because of the election. Buffett says it's clear the solution will involve a mix of tax increases and spending cuts.
"It's going to get done," Buffett said. "The American people won't stand for it not getting done."
He also praised the job Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has been doing, and said he would support Bernanke in a third term.
Buffett said he continues to look for a major acquisition for Berkshire Hathaway, but he's not willing to pay more to compete with other bidders.
Berkshire has lost out on a couple of major acquisitions in recent years because private equity firms are bidding aggressively with borrowed money, Buffett said. Berkshire doesn't borrow for acquisitions, and it has about $40 billion cash on hand. "Pricing is difficult, and money is cheap," he said.
He said just this week someone approached him about a possible $6 billion deal but he hasn't reviewed the financial statements yet so he doesn't know if it will work.
Berkshire has made about 15 smaller acquisitions this year, he said. He calls those bolt-on acquisitions because they are just added to Berkshire's existing businesses. He also said he has added to Berkshire's Wells Fargo and IBM stock investments this year, but he'd still prefer to make a big acquisition.
Buffett said Wednesday that he is feeling good more than a month after finishing his prostate cancer treatments.
"I feel fine. I feel great," he said.
The 82-year-old said the treatments were tiring. He underwent six weeks of radiation treatments, and finished them in September.
He disclosed his cancer diagnosis in April and said his cancer was not considered life-threatening because it was caught early.
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Berkshire Hathaway Inc.: www.berkshirehathaway.com