Two icons of U.S. business – Warren Buffett and Jack Welch – said Monday the death of Osama bin Laden was a thrill but won’t end the threat of terrorism, yet the economy is continuing to improve.
The two revered businessmen appeared together Monday on CNBC. Buffett’s interview had been scheduled to discuss the economy and last weekend’s Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting, but international relations became a prominent topic because of the bin Laden news. Buffett and other Berkshire officials later also did an interview on the Fox Business Network.
Buffett said he felt good when he heard of bin Laden’s death, but he still worries about terrorist attacks.
“The desire to do us harm exists in too many people around the world,” Buffett said.
But Buffett doesn’t expect the bin Laden news to affect business much.
“I don’t think this is a big market factor,” Buffett said on the Fox Business Network. “The American people feel wonderful today – all of us – but in terms of earning power of American business, I don’t think that factor should change dramatically because of this.”
Buffett said the fact that the United States hasn’t sustained another major terrorist attack since Sept. 11, 2001, shows that the government has likely done many things right. Buffett, whose company owns several major insurers, said he was expecting another attack in 2001.
“It’s always been a mistake to bet against the United States since 1776,” Buffett said on CNBC.
Welch said seeing the video of Americans united at Ground Zero reciting the Pledge of Allegiance gave him chills. He said he hopes the news will revive the American spirit.
“I hope it’s the beginnings of the kindling wood starting to burn in the American spirit,” Welch said.
Over the weekend, Buffett met with roughly 40,000 Berkshire shareholders and spend hours answering their questions.
Buffett and Welch both said Monday the economy is improving, but that rising gas and food prices could limit economic growth by hurting consumer spending on other things.
Buffett said the reports he gets from Berkshire’s 80-odd businesses show the economy is still improving slowly except for businesses related to the U.S. housing market.
Welch says the increase in gas prices sucked $100 billion out of the economy in the first quarter.
“There’s no question that dollars have been sucked out of the economy,” Welch said.
Buffett said an increase in gas prices affects the economy much like a tax increase except that the revenue goes to oil producing nations instead of the federal government.
“The economy is getting better. I think you will see major progress when U.S. housing picks up,” Buffett said.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who serves on Berkshire’s board, said on Fox Business that he’s optimistic about the future because of the new ideas being developed.
“Innovation is on the march,” Gates said. “We’re going to get a lot of great tools to solve problems.”
Both Welch and Buffett said they were looking forward to the end of the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying program known as “quantitative easing” this summer.
“Free money in the hands of very smart people for too long is likely to create something unpleasant,” Welch said.
Buffett and the Berkshire officials were also asked again about the actions of a one-time Berkshire executive who resigned last month after details emerged about a questionable investment he made.
Former MidAmerican Energy Chairman David Sokol has denied any wrongdoing, but Berkshire has said Sokol violated company ethics and insider trading policies by investing roughly $10 million in Lubrizol stock while he was evaluating the chemical firm as a possible acquisition. Berkshire says Sokol also failed to disclose all the details of his investment as Berkshire finalized a $9 billion agreement to buy Lubrizol.
Buffett called Sokol’s behavior inexcusable, but said he doesn’t think many changes are needed at Berkshire. His friend, Gates, supported that view.
“Berkshire has very good compliance rules,” Gates said. “The fact is that no compliance rules are going to stop somebody from making a mistake.”
Buffett and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger both said the Sokol situation is a sad one for him and for Berkshire because Sokol did so many good things for the company over the years.
“I saw it instantly as tragedy,” Munger said.
Buffett told shareholders he wishes in hindsight that the news release he issued in March about Sokol’s resignation had been tougher, and he wishes he’d asked more questions about Sokol’s Lubrizol stake when Sokol first mentioned it in January.
Berkshire owns roughly 80 subsidiaries, including clothing, furniture and jewelry firms, but its insurance and utility businesses typically account for more than half of the company’s net income. It also has major investments in such companies as Coca-Cola Co. and Wells Fargo & Co.