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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Buffett on trade imbalances

Warren Buffett's 28 February 2007 letter to shareholders is available online, and makes educational and entertaining reading. Here's a pithy extract:

As our U.S. trade problems worsen, the probability that the dollar will weaken over time continues to be high. I fervently believe in real trade – the more the better for both us and the world. We had about $1.44 trillion of this honest-to-God trade in 2006. But the U.S. also had $.76 trillion of pseudo-trade last year – imports for which we exchanged no goods or services. (Ponder, for a moment, how commentators would describe the situation if our imports were $.76 trillion – a full 6% of GDP – and we had no exports.) Making these purchases that weren’t reciprocated by sales, the U.S. necessarily transferred ownership of its assets or IOUs to the rest of the world. Like a very wealthy but self-indulgent family, we peeled off a bit of what we owned in order to consume more than we produced.

The U.S. can do a lot of this because we are an extraordinarily rich country that has behaved responsibly in the past. The world is therefore willing to accept our bonds, real estate, stocks and businesses. And we have a vast store of these to hand over.

These transfers will have consequences, however. Already the prediction I made last year about one fall-out from our spending binge has come true: The “investment income” account of our country – positive in every previous year since 1915 – turned negative in 2006. Foreigners now earn more on their U.S. investments than we do on our investments abroad. In effect, we’ve used up our bank account and turned to our credit card. And, like everyone who gets in hock, the U.S. will now experience “reverse compounding” as we pay ever-increasing amounts of interest on interest.

I want to emphasize that even though our course is unwise, Americans will live better ten or twenty years from now than they do today. Per-capita wealth will increase. But our citizens will also be forced every year to ship a significant portion of their current production abroad merely to service the cost of our huge debtor position. It won’t be pleasant to work part of each day to pay for the over-consumption of your ancestors. I believe that at some point in the future U.S. workers and voters will find this annual “tribute” so onerous that there will be a severe political backlash. How that will play out in markets is impossible to predict – but to expect a “soft landing” seems like wishful thinking.

It's reassuring that Buffett thinks per-capita wealth will increase; this is an antidote to the most extreme doomsters. But it begs the question of how equitably that wealth will be distributed. The transfer abroad of industrial jobs leaves most of their former holders in less well-paid employment, while boosting the profits of large multinational companies (such as Wal-Mart, in which Berkshire Hathaway has close to a billion-dollar stake). From James Kynge's China book, it seems that the gap between America's rich and poor is widening, and the middle class is shrinking. Save and invest while you can.

Buffett is also enlightening on the future of newspapers in the electronic age, and the occasional bargains to be had in insurance. His firm has made money out of carefully-considered reinsurance (including for Lloyds of London) and derivatives. Berkshire Hathaway has gradually moved from being a "growth" to a "value" business, delivering returns increasingly from income earned, and insurance business helps. BH has made a profit from "super-cat" insurance in the past year, but Buffett warns that Hurricane Katrina wasn't the last nor the worst possible.

Note also the warning in the extract about the dollar. Recent falls aren't the end of the necessary decline - see to the Levy report referred to in my previous post.

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