Chatty Warren: In the past 36 hours, Warren Buffett, billionaire and Sage of Omaha, has said lots. He’s admitted blunders, criticized the dead (Steve Jobs), fudged history and hinted at his own successor. He’s also named one investment he likes better than U.S. stocks.
What’s better than stocks? Regular old U.S. single-family homes, he told CNBC earlier today. He’d buy thousands of them, he says, if only it were practical to manage such a portfolio.
In the same interview, Buffett said that at the end of last year he had invested 175 million Euros each in eight European stocks that he views as undervalued, in part because of the European debt crisis. He did not identify the companies but said the investments are among his biggest-ever bets on Europe.
On Saturday the 81 year old sage warned shareholders in his Berkshire Hathaway that if natural gas prices keep falling, Berkshire may have to eat $2 billion in bonds of the power company Energy Future Holdings, which Berkshire bought back in 2007, when natural gas prices were expected to rise.
They didn’t rise, thanks to increased drilling, and the value of Berkshire’s bonds declined. Berkshire wrote down $390 million on the bonds last year and $1 billion in 2010. The confession comes in Buffett’s annual letter to Berkshire shareholders, which is posted now on Berkshire’s website.
“I totally miscalculated the gain/loss probabilities when I purchased the bonds,” Buffett writes. In tennis terms, he says, “This was a major unforced error by your chairman.”
Elsewhere in the same letter, he says Berkshire’s board is “enthusiastic” about the executive who has been chosen to replace Buffett as CEO. That person, however, isn’t named, and Buffett says the candidate himself (or herself?) hasn’t yet been told.
On the topic of stock buybacks, Buffett writes that Berkshire repurchased only $67 million of its own stock last year. Further on stock buybacks, he told CNBC this morning that the late Steve Jobs had phoned him a few years ago to ask Buffett’s advice on what Apple ought to do with its huge cash hoard.
Buffett says he told Jobs that, if Jobs felt Apple’s stock was undervalued, Jobs should use it to buy Apple stock.
Buffett says Jobs did believe Apple’s stock was undervalued. But Jobs never did the buyback. Buffett says he heard later that Jobs had claimed Buffett had agreed with is decision. Buffett, by his account, implies that Job’s claim wasn’t true.
In his letter to shareholders, Buffett has erased from history David Sokol, the Berkshire exec who for many years was presumed to be Buffett’s heir. Sokol quit Berkshire in March, after controversy over investments Sokol made in a company Berkshire later acquired.
While Berkshire has previously credited Sokol by name for turnarounds at the company’s rail, energy and corporate jet operations, those “attaboys” now have been erased and Sokol’s name deleted.