Watchers in this bear run in the stock market might have noticed that Warren Buffett have been snapping up some deals along the way.Whats interesting is that the closest that he gets to investing in anything financial was going into the reinsuring of municipal bonds.
Perhaps he isn’t as smart as our Singapore GIC and Temasek Holdings which picks up the real bargain in the big investment banks in US.
Perhaps GIC and Temasek are smart enough to understand how the banks’ work, unlike Buffett, who is more interested in Candy companies that is simpler to understand.
Here, Buffett gives an interview with CNBC shortly after the announcement.
Becky Quick: Warren, thanks for joining us this morning. Appreciate it.
Warren Buffett: My pleasure.
Becky: People are always trying to figure out what you’re doing with your cash. Why would you look at Wrigley right now? Why this deal right now?
Buffett: Well, I’ve been conducting a 70-year taste test, Becky, since I was about seven years old, on the products. I’ve done the same thing with Mars products. And they met the 70-year taste test (laughs.) But to tell you the truth, the Mars people asked me about participating in this, and we are financing. But we are a very, very junior partner, although we will have about 6-1/2 billion dollars in it. But we are a financing partner, in effect, for Mars in this acquisition.
Becky: Six-and-a-half billion dollars, though. That’s still a substantial take. What do you look at beyond just the taste test? Do you think that this is the type of a bet that makes a good deal when you’re looking at economic hardship times? Is this a recession-proof play?
Buffett: Yeah. Both companies have great brands. When I talk to classes of university students, for a dozen years or more I’ve used Wrigley as an example … I haven’t known about Mars except that they’re a provate company. But there is really nothing that can go wrong with something like the Wrigley or the Mars brands. It’s literally true that they have, ah, faced the test of time over decades and decades and people use more and more of their products every day.
Joe Kernen: Warren, this is Joe. You’re not going to operate this, or exert any influence operating ..
Joe: .. So it’s not like we’re going to see See’s (Candies) somehow with a Mars, or a Wrigley. You’ve got Dairy Queen. I see synergies with Coca-Cola. I mean, I see a lot of things happening here, Warren, none of them good for my waistline, but I see a lot of things you could do here. But that’s not what’s in the cards?
Warren: That’s not what’s in the cards at all. No. In matter of fact Mars has had a boxed chocolate operation that they started, I don’t know, thirty years ago, to compete with See’s, so we’re in different ends of the game. There will be no connection at all.
Joe: I see once again that your 6-1/2 billion is going into something like this and not going into a financial on Wall Street. But a lot of people think they’ve bottomed now. Are you finally ready to think now that maybe it’s safe to put your toe in the water?
Buffett: Well, I understand a Wrigley or a Mars a whole lot better than I understand the balance sheet of some of the big banks. I know what I’m getting in this, and some of the larger financial institutions, I really don’t know what’s there.
Joe: Do you feel a lessening of some of the pressures and some of the angst, some of the credit crunch? Do you think we’re over the hump, Warren?
Buffett: Well, I think that what the Fed did, and I think it was proper, what the Fed did with Bear Stearns was a big line in the sand. That changed the game. At that point, the world is looking kind of different in the financial world.
Carl Quintanilla: Warren, we all know that a lot of the companies in this space are leveraged to the price of commodities, whether it’s cocoa, or what have you. Do you have a comment on what we’ve just been talking about the past week, whether it’s grains, or just global commodities in general. Does it feel toppy to you?
Buffett: Well, I’ve got a son that’s a farmer. He’s a very happy fellow. They used to tell the story out here in Nebraska about the farmer that won the lottery, and they sent a television crew out to see him. And the television interviewer said, ‘You know, you’ve just won twenty million dollars in the lottery, what are you going to do with it? And the farmer said, ‘Well, I think I’ll just keep farming until it’s all gone.’ (Laughter.) Well, that was the situation in farming until the last year or so, but it’s a different world now. And I don’t know how much ethanol contributed to it, but, you know, you get twelve dollar soybeans and six dollar corn and that sort of thing, and it’s going to have an effect. I’m amazed we haven’t seen more inflationary effect so far with the CPI, when you consider what steel is doing, what oil is doing, what grains are doing, there is a lot of potential inflation down the road.
Becky: Hey Warren, we’ve been talking this morning about whether or not we’re in a recession at this point. The last we talked with you was a couple of months ago, and you said it looked by any sort of relevant manner, if you’re trying to measure this, by any sort of real estimate it looked like we’re in a recession. But there are some people who are saying, yeah, it doesn’t look like a recession to them. We’ve got GDP this week. Do you still stand by that idea that it looks like we’re in a recession?
Buffett: Yeah. I think we’re in a recession. I mean, a recession is defined in a certain way by the National Bureau of Economic Research, but I think it’s defined by the man in the street a little differently than whether there have been two quarters of reported (negative) GDP growth. And incidentally, when GDP growth is below 1% a year it’s really falling on a per capita basis because our population increases about one percent. So even though the National Bureau uses an absolute figure, it’s up one-tenth they don’t count that as a recessionary quarter, but the GDP per capita has gone down in a quarter where the gain is half a percent or something of the sort. We are in a recession, unless you want to stick strictly to the technical definition, which I really don’t think has much meaning to the fellow who has lost his job or is facing a money-market fund that isn’t paying him out, or whatever it might be.
Steve Liesman: What does it say about credit markets that you guys are acting as a financier in this case, and is this a new role for Berkshire that you see yourself increasingly playing with the considerable cash on your books?
Buffett: Yeah, it’s not a common role for us but it’s something we have done before and we’ll probably do again. I think in this particular case, we fit very well as a partner for what the Mars family wanted to achieve in this purchase. They needed somebody they felt comfortable with, they knew the check would clear, that wouldn’t interfere in any real way. So we’ve done it differently than most people would have done it. We did it the way they wanted it done.
Michael Farr, CNBC Squawk Box Guest Host: Mr. Buffett, good morning, it’s Michael Farr.
Buffett: Hi, Michael.
Farr: When you look at this deal, why now? The economy, if things are contracting and we’ve got rates where they are, why is this a good time for an acquisition? And do you have any integration concerns as Mars begins to take on this public company?
Buffett: Well, I think a good time to buy a really great business is when you can do it. Many, many years ago, as I remember, Herman Lay offered the Frito-Lay company to Coca-Cola. And he offered them the company first, as I understand it, and they decided for one reason or another they didn’t want to do it then. And of course Pepsico bought it and it’s the best thing they ever did. So if you get a chance to buy a wonderful business, then my advice is, grab it. As Yogi Berra would say, ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Carl: Warren, it seems like it’s been 72 hours or so since the bottom of the dollar has pretty much become conventional wisdom. Do you want to either join that camp or fight against the tide?
Buffett: I never have any idea what the foreign exchange or the stock market or the bond market is going to do in any given week or month or year. I do think over time, if we keep following the policies we’ve following on trade, the dollar will become weaker. But I’m talking about a ten-year period. And incidentally, let’s make sure … I think it’s going to become worth less, over time. (Laughter.)
Becky: Not the ‘worthless.’
Joe: That was going to be my question, whether you have a position right now and whether you’re covering any of your shorts, at least short-term, in the dollar, Warren?
Buffett: Well, as I mentioned in the annual report, we only have one small direct foreign currency position, very small. But we have built up more earning power abroad through the ownership of businesses that earn a lot of money abroad. Some company like Coca-Cola earns a very high percentage of its money abroad. So we have an indirect position in currencies through earning power. We do not have any significant direct position, nor have we had for some time.
Carl: But the (Brazilian) real has treated you pretty well, hasn’t it?
Buffett: It’s interesting, the real has more than doubled in value over the past five or six years. Who thought you would get rich owning a South American currency?
Joe: You know when you answer the phone or you come on, you know we’re going to keep talking until you pretend to do one of those commercials where it cuts out and your phone goes off. My next one, are you talking about policies…let’s quickly talk – you’re well-known to have helped the campaigns of both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama. This is going on and on and on. I tell you, I cannot pick who the nominee is going to be. I still think it’s going to be Hillary Clinton.
Carl: If you were Warren, you wouldn’t have had to.
Joe: You would have picked it both. Has it gotten to the point yet where it’s hurting the chances for the Democrats do you think in November, Mr. Buffett?
Buffett: It can’t help. I mean, some people are going to go away from this race with ill feelings. Whether the ill feelings translate into them staying home, I doubt if the ill feelings translate into them voting for McCain. But you want an enthusiastic electorate when you get to November and to the extent that people on either side feel that their candidate hasn’t quite gotten a fair shot or been subject to too much mudslinging or something, that’s a minus in the general campaign. I’m just sitting here unequivocally with a foot in both camps.
Carl: We remember when you came out in favor of both, and the question was to you at the time, ‘Why aren’t you choosing?’ Did you have an inkling it was going to end up like this?
Buffett: No, I thought they were the two best candidates. And well before they declared, I promised each of them that I would support them, which a lot of people have gotten in trouble doing that in a romantic way and I’ve gotten in trouble doing it in a political way.
Becky: Back to what’s happening with Wrigley. We had Sam Zell on about six weeks ago and asked him about Wrigley Stadium. He said, hey. it’s been free all this time to have that name on the stadium but he wouldn’t mind charging for it. You’re a baseball fan. Would you pay up to keep Wrigley on Wrigley stadium?
Buffett: I’ve never been a big fan — We’ve got a lot of propositions at Berkshire for sticking our name on sports stadiums. Based on the prices asked, I’ve never been a big fan of doing that. I did go to my first baseball game at Wrigley Stadium in 1939. But the Wrigley company sold their interest in the Cubs, which meant the stadium as well in 1981. So they really haven’t been involved there for a long time.
Carl: Dark days for those of us who used to live in Chicago.
Steve: The idea that you have two companies combining who are big users of inputs that are increasing in cost big-time right now, is that something we can expect to see? Is there something of an attempt to push back against the suppliers here. I’ve got to think corn syrup has to be one of the big costs of what Mars and Wrigley’s pay for these days.
Buffett: I don’t think you have enormous power as a – commodity markets are bigger than any one company. So just like if you’re going to be buying oil or something of the sort, you’re going to pay the market price. The nice thing about it is your competitor is going to be paying the market price, as well. And, you, know, sugar is a big element and sugar hasn’t moved. But I think, you know, whether it’s Kraft or Kellogg, you name the company, they’re going to be paying more for their raw materials.
Joe: You haven’t bought a fertilizer company, I don’t think, have you Warren?
Buffett: No, I haven’t.
Joe: Seed company?
Joe: And I know, you have a lot of utilities. And you had a big Petrochina investment in China. You sold out. Should we read into that, that maybe you’re not as active in that area as the situation seems to dictate at this point? Are we getting toppy? That’s the question I’m trying to ask you. I guess nobody knows. But is it crazy right now in commodities or is this the state of the world?
Buffett: Well, who knows on that? But I don’t play sectors, Joe. When I — the thing that makes my job fun is when I go to work in the morning, I don’t really know what’s going to happen. So, two months ago, I didn’t have the faintest idea I would be investing 6-1/2 billion of Berkshire’s money in this particular transaction. You know, and then the phone rings. I love it when the phone rings. Usually it’s the wrong number but every now and then something happens.
Becky: Although Warren, you have played some sectors in the past, with the transports playing on the rails, and other areas. You have not made broad commodities plays. Is there a reason for that?
Buffett: Well, it’s probably because I don’t know what commodities are going to do. The thing about commodities, if I knew what commodities were going to do, I wouldn’t have to play them through stocks. I could just go on the commodity market and do it. So, I, I don’t know what oil or wheat or soybeans or cocoa or anything like that’s going to be selling for next week or next month or next year. I do know people are going to be chewing Wrigley gum and eating Mars bars.
Carl: You know, last week was Earth Day. You missed it, Joe, and we had a big …
Joe: I was around on the planet for that day, but I missed your coverage.
Carl: But one of the things that Abby Joseph Cohen from Goldman said, Warren, is she’s seen more VC money go into green initiatives than pretty much anything else. Does that hold any interest for you?
Buffett: Well, what holds an interest for me is a business I can understand and one that’s got durable long-term competitive advantage and the good management and the price makes sense. If I can find that any place, I’ll do it. And a lot of times, things are just beyond my competence. Somebody can have a wonderful idea that I don’t understand and God bless them. I’ll stick with stuff I understand.
Joe: Have you ever looked at Hershey, Warren? Ever gotten close to anything because it’s a family trust there. Do you think something happens there now?
Buffett: Well, I followed that for a long time. When I was 13 years old and living in Washington, D.C., I ran away to Hershey, Pennsylvania, and got picked up by the state police. So I’ve done a little in-depth research on Hershey that way. (Laughs). But you know, it’s been very interesting to follow the Hershey trust story.
Joe: You have looked at buying Hershey?
Buffett: No, not really, not really.
Joe: Not really.
Carl: But you really did run away from home?
Buffett: That I did, right. But I only got about 100 miles.
Carl: That’s pretty good.
Becky: Warren, if you took a look at all of your businesses, because you have a lot of consumer-driven businesses and took a look at all of that, how have things changed over the last couple months or have they?
Buffett: I would say that in the retail businesses, we’re in jewelry, in furniture, that sort of thing, I would say that if anything, they’ve gotten a little worse. And, of course, the things connected with housing, whether it’s in brick or whether it’s in carpet, those businesses have shown no uptick at all. And jewelry had a bad Christmas. Everyplace, including places like Wal-Mart and Costco, and it stayed that way. So I think — I think consumers are feeling gas and food prices and not feeling they’ve got a lot of money for other things.
Carl: You know, the bulls of course, Warren, as you know, are going to point to the stimulus checks that are going to go out today, starting today. They’re looking at some of the housing starts for the past couple months and saying at least we’re working our way toward selling more homes than we’re building. Do you take solace in any of those two things?
Buffett: Well, that’s what you have to do. And it’s going to have to go for sometime to get rid of the overhang. We do form, you know, whatever it is, a million households every year in this country. And as long as they don’t build a million housing units, we’ll eat away to some extent at the surplus. But the problems were very — I mean the bubble in housing was huge. There was, in 2006, there was $330 billion of cash out, mortgages just in the primaries. So that was a lot of stimulus in 2006 just from people taking equity out of their homes. I think this is going to be fairly long and fairly deep but who knows?
Michael Farr, CNBC Squawk Box Guest Host: Mr. Buffett, it’s Michael Farr again. We’re hearing from traders on the street and other strategists that perhaps we’ve seen the worst and we’ve seen the bottom and that we’re going to have this shallow recession and it’s going to be over with quickly. You’ve said we’re in recession. Do you think this is going to be, sort of, one of these short rebounds? Can we start buying now?
Buffett: Well, I don’t know about the stock market in terms of what it will do. My general feeling, and this is not a field of specialty for me, but my general feeling is that the recession will be longer and deeper than most people think. But what the stock market, the stock market often does not behave in sync with what’s going on in business. So, I wouldn’t want to predict what the stock market might do. My feeling from what I see in the economy is that this will not be short and shallow.
Becky: All right. Warren, want to thank you again for joining us this morning. Warren Buffett again with the news on Berkshire Hathaway and Mars teaming up to close a deal to acquire Wrigley. And Warren, thank you very much for coming on today.
Buffett: Thank you, and I’ll get back to chewing my gum and eating candy.
Becky: Is there a favorite you have with Wrigley?
Buffett: Yeah, I’m an old-timer. I like spearmint and Juicy Fruit.
Joe: You look at Mars, too. Snickers.
Buffett: Snickers, yeah, I love the new Dove bar and I’ve even gotten into Skittles lately.
Joe: You have?
Becky: Those are my favorite.
Carl: I love Skittles, too.
Joe: You guys are young, but you know, my fillings. They pull my fillings out, Warren.
Buffett: That’s okay. Just buy an interest in a dentist firm.
Becky: Thanks, Warren.