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    Notes From Warren Buffett

    Feb 28 • Thinking Economically • 1120 Views

    Released yesterday, Warren Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders, as always, included sections that make me smile: 

    Talking about how he uses a consistent standard to assess Berkshire Hathaway’s performance:
    “That keeps us from the temptation of seeing where the arrow of performance lands and then painting the bull’s eye around it.”

    As an introduction to “What We Don’t Do”:
    “Long ago, Charlie laid out his strongest ambition: ‘All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.'”

    Discussing ownership of Geico:
    “An old Wall Street joke gets close to our experience:
    Customer: Thanks for putting me in XYZ stock at 5.  I hear it’s up to 18.
    Broker: Yes, and that’s just the beginning.  In fact, the company is doing so well now, that it’s an even better buy at 18 than it was when you made your purchase.
    Customer: Damn, I knew I should have waited.”

    Commenting on incorrect advice he gave to Geico management about issuing a credit card:
    “I subtly indicated that I was older and wiser.
    I was just older.”

    On seeing a silver lining in the housing bubble cloud:
    “Indeed, many families that couldn’t afford to buy an appropriate home a few years ago now find it well within their means because the bubble burst.”

    After stating his own responsibility for risk control at Berkshire:
    “In my view a board of directors of a huge financial institution is derelict if it does not insist that its CEO bear full responsibility for risk control. If he’s incapable of handling that job, he should look for other employment.  And if he fails at it-with the government thereupon required to step in with funds or guarantees-the financial consequences for him and his board should be severe.”

    And finally, an inspiring conclusion:
    “At 86 and 79, Charlie and I remain lucky beyond our dreams.  We were born in America; had terrific parents who saw that we got good educations;  have enjoyed wonderful families and great health; and came equipped with a ‘business’ gene that allows us to prosper in a manner hugely disproportionate to that experienced by many people who contribute as much or more to our society’s well-being.  Moreover, we have long had jobs that we love, in which we are helped in countless ways by talented and cheerful associates.  Indeed, over the years, our work has become ever more fascinating; no wonder we tap-dance to work.”

    May we all tap dance to work!


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    Big and Little Worries

    Feb 27 • Thinking Economically • 366 Views

    1.  Sovereign debt: Contemplating big worries, I could place sovereign debt at the top of the the list. Should we currently be concerned about Greece, Spain and other EU nations with excessive obligations?  Beyond, should we be focusing on the U.K. and the U.S.? Referring to the U.S. stimulus, one article quotes Lois Lane saying, in flight, to Superman, “If you’ve got me, who’s got you?”
    2.  State and local debt: Within the United States, are state and local obligations unmanageable or, will the pressure to cut costs be therapeutic?
    3.  Exit strategy: Should the Fed’s exit strategy make you lose sleep?  Is there a productive way for the Fed to diminish the portfolio it gathered when it was flooding financial intermediaries with cash through quantitative easing?
    4.  Inflation: Perhaps, instead, inflation looms large as the next big worry.  Having deployed a massive stimulus, will inflation hit us on the rebound?
    5.  Housing:  Housing also might make us pause.  When the Fed stops buying mortgage backed securities, will potential liquidity for new construction evaporate?
    6.  Iran: Or, should we just think about Iran and the possibility that oil prices will soar if there is an attack on their nuclear facilities.
    7.  China: Maybe though, China is the big worry. Will they continue purchasing our debt?
    And finally, a small worry…
    Will I ever again buy tomato sauce??

    The Economic Life
    While people repeatedly say, “This time is different,” it never is.  The market system will always be subject to business cycles.  With GDP relatively high, it will hit a peak.  Next a contraction will unfold, then a trough, and finally the new expansion.  From Adam Smith onward, these cycles have recurred.  Returning to our worry list, I suggest optimism. 

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    Default Records

    Feb 26 • Economic History, Economic Thinkers, Financial Markets, Government, Thinking Economically • 330 Views

    Seeing current concerns about the money owed by Greece, I wondered about her past record.  Until 1932, it was not good.  The first report of Greece defaulting on her debt was during the fourth century B.C.  At the time, ten Greek municipalities defaulted on their debt to the Delos Temple. More recently,  Greece defaulted five times: 1826, 1843, 1860, 1893, 1932.

    Even worse, Spain holds a “default record” with seven nineteenth century defaults after having six defaults during previous centuries.

    These default records led me to wonder why investors still buy these securities. I found the answer by looking at the actual and potential returns which sometimes are more lucrative than more secure securities.

    The Economic Life

    Alexander Hamilton surely knew about sovereign debt defaults and wanted to avoid them. Reading about his plan to fund and refinance the United States’ revolutionary war debt reveals his commitment to establishing our good credit.  His approach was varied, including issuing new bonds to pay for those outstanding and servicing the interest promptly on the foreign debt.  It worked.  Even those in Holland, then the financial capital of the world, displayed confidence in our public credit. Adhering to the Hamiltonian philosophy, the United States has never defaulted on its debt.

    Sovereign debt: government debt;  money owed (or guaranteed) by a country to investors who purchase its bonds.


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    Micro Matters

    Feb 25 • Thinking Economically • 356 Views

    Listening to recent podcasts on Haiti from NPR’s Planet Money,  I started thinking about the large impact that something very little can have.
    The first story involved a small loan through which a Haitian woman had created a “consignment” business.  With $5000 Haitian dollars ($600 US) of micro credit, she purchased items at the Dominican Republic border.  Then, transporting the goods by bus, she brought them to Haitian shopkeepers. Fifteen days later, the shopkeepers paid her. Until the earthquake destroyed her customers’ inventory, her business was successful.
    The second story was about the difference a small plastic crate could make.  If Haiti produced more mangoes, the U.S. would buy them.  Haiti’s mango growers are small farmers, each with three or four trees.  If a farmer piles mangoes outdoors and it rains, the fruit gets damaged.  If the ride from the farm is too bumpy, more damage.  Because of damage, forty percent of Haiti’s mango crop is unusable.  Not as simple as it sounds, the solution is to put the mangoes in crates.

    The Economic Life

    Muhammad Yunus and the bank he founded won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.  An economics professor and a Bangladeshi banker, Dr. Yunus developed the concept of microcredit.

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    Snow Storm Stats

    Feb 24 • Thinking Economically • 363 Views

    According to Floyd Norris, snowy weather can affect job numbers. He explained that while the February employment report appears to represent the month of February, actually, it reflects one week in February—a week with horrible weather. Between February seven and thirteen, the East Coast was hit by blizzards so severe that they shut down Washington, D.C. For that week, fewer people will report that they were working. And, that is the week on which the employment numbers will be based.

    Interestingly, Norris cited January, 1996 for a similar scenario. Then, because of the days affected by severe weather, the economy lost 206,000 jobs. At the time, no one was sure whether it was weather or an impending recession.

    The Economic Life
    You can refer to the alphabet when describing your economic prediction. A “V”? You are an optimist. A “W”? Double dip as we experienced in 1980 and 1982. Or, are you a pessimist? Then select an “L”.

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