Buffett: Put out economic fire then deal with deficit
Investor says he has faith that U.S. economy will create jobs and it will fare well against China.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Billionaire Warren Buffett offered some advice to Uncle Sam on Friday: Time it right, but tackle the nation's enormous federal deficit.
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Buffett said if the United States keeps flooding the world with its debt, countries will eventually notice that U.S. fiscal policies are "out of control" and become "less and less and less enthused" about lending to it.
But the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway added that though the United States will want to act "fairly soon" to cut the deficit, it has to wait until the economy comes back.
"We want to put out the fire," he said. "Then we want to quit squirting water on those buildings. We have to know when the fire's out."
And how will we know?
"Well, it will be retail sales. It'll be automobile sales. It'll be when home construction starts coming back," Buffett said, adding that the signs might not be recognized until three or four months after the fact. Still, it could happen in the next two years.
Buffett said that while unemployment might stabilize later, it will also come down to a normal rate.
"We'll create new jobs," has assured Rose, explaining that the United States has created millions of jobs since the unemployment rate was last above 10% in the 1980s and it will do the same this time around.
"Who would have thought that when Paul Allen and Bill Gates were down there in Albuquerque eating pizza and drinking coke at two in the morning, that they were a big part of our future?" Buffett asked. "The American economy will come back. And it won't be tomorrow, and it won't be exactly the same, but in the end, we have not changed the American people and their capacity to innovate or their excitement about becoming more prosperous and coming up with new ideas."
And as far as China beating and growing faster than the United States? Buffett said while China's population is four times larger and will thus grow faster, its economy is still much smaller overall.
"I'll meet some guy on the street today whose net worth will be growing faster than mine on a percentage basis. But if I start with a big enough number, it'll be a while before he catches me," Buffett said, adding that it's a "long way off" for China's economy to be larger per capita than that of the U.S.
While Buffett said Washington came together to respond to the financial meltdown "like they should" have, the government should have been more aggressive in dealing with bank executives at too-big-to-fail institutions that needed government intervention.
"If you run a financial institution that, in effect, can bring down the system unless the government steps in, I think something very bad should happen to you," Buffett said. "I want to make it painful for them."