Buffett: Real estate slowdown ahead
The Oracle of Omaha expects the housing market to see "significant downward adjustments," and warns on mortgage financing.
OMAHA (MONEY Magazine) - At this weekend's annual meeting of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, security is tighter than usual, with several entrances to the parking lot of the Qwest convention center closed.
This may have something to do with Buffett's announcement yesterday of his purchase of an 80% stake in Iscar, an Israeli-based metal cutting tools firm, for $4 billion. In one fell swoop, that makes him one of the biggest foreign investors in Israel. With that news, a little extra security amidst the sea of the roughly 20,000 shareholders and acolytes in attendance can't hurt.
Regardless, Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway (Research) vice chairman Charles Munger threw Saturday's entire morning open to a question and answer session with shareholders just as they do every year. With no major scandal or news event in the foreground, Buffett and Munger struck a more reserved tone than they have at past meetings.
But their views on housing prices and the energy and commodity markets may ruffle some feathers. Buffett played his usual role of the talkative, cheery extrovert, speaking in perfect paragraphs, while Munger took the role of the laconic, crotchety critic whose favorite sentence is "I have nothing further to add."
These are not just their stage personas, but how they normally think and speak. What follows is an edited and approximate transcript of their remarks.
On the real estate bubble
Buffett: "What we see in our residential brokerage business [HomeServices of America, the nation's second-largest realtor] is a slowdown everyplace, most dramatically in the formerly hottest markets. [Buffett singled out Dade and Broward counties in Florida as an area that has experienced a rise in unsold inventory and a stagnation in price.] The day traders of the Internet moved into trading condos, and that kind a speculation can produce a market that can move in a big way. You can get real discontinuities. We've had a real bubble to some degree. I would be surprised if there aren't some significant downward adjustments, especially in the higher end of the housing market."
On mortgage financing
Munger: "There is a lot of ridiculous credit being extended in the U.S. housing sector."
Buffett: "Dumb lending always has its consequences. It's like a disease that doesn't manifest itself for a few weeks, like an epidemic that doesn't show up until it's too late to stop it Any developer will build anything he can borrow against. If you look at the 10Ks that are getting filed [by banks] and compare them just against last year's 10Ks, and look at their balances of 'interest accrued but not paid,' you'll see some very interesting statistics [implying that many homeowners are no longer able to service their current debt]."
On a commodities bubble
Buffett: "I don't think there's a bubble in agricultural commodities like wheat, corn and soybeans. But in metals and oil there's been a terrific [price] move. It's like most trends: At the beginning, it's driven by fundamentals, then speculation takes over. As the old saying goes, what the wise man does in the beginning, fools do in the end. With any asset class that has a big move, first the fundamentals attract speculation, then the speculation becomes dominant.
Once a price history develops, and people hear that their neighbor made a lot of money on something, that impulse takes over, and we're seeing that in commodities and housing...Orgies tend to be wildest toward the end. It's like being Cinderella at the ball. You know that at midnight everything's going to turn back to pumpkins & mice. But you look around and say, 'one more dance,' and so does everyone else. The party does get to be more fun -- and besides, there are no clocks on the wall. And then suddenly the clock strikes 12, and everything turns back to pumpkins and mice."
Buffett: "Charlie [Munger] and I do not know enough about the business to evaluate it. It depends on government policy and a lot of other variables we're not good at predicting. It's also a very hot area for investors right now, and we don't like looking at things that are hot and easy to raise money for. Generally speaking, agricultural processing businesses have not earned high returns on tangible capital. Ethanol could prove an exception, but I'm not sure how you gain a competitive advantage with any particular ethanol plant."