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Warren Buffett on Jamie Dimon as Treasury Secretary, the fiscal cliff, and taxes

Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. participates in a discussion during the 25th anniversary celebration dinner of the Economic Club of Washington June 5, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

All the talk these days is about the likelihood of the U.S. Congress avoiding a fiscal cliff. You know who’s not worried? Warren Buffett.

"Sure. Yeah, they will," Buffett said in an interview with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal this morning, refering to a likely deal by Congress to avoid steep budget cuts and an increase in taxes.

"They've danced around it for quite a while," he said. "I think the American people, with their opinion of Congress that they've expressed -- I think the message has gotten through that we've got to get serious about this."

Buffett -- the so-called Oracle of Omaha has a net worth of $46 billion as of September 2012, placing him in the No. 2 spot on the Forbes 400 list -- answered questions on everything from JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon as Treasury Secretary ("I just think he'd be the guy I'd pick for that job"), to the future of Democratic capitalism (not worried), to tax rules and class warfare.



On Jamie Dimon as Treasury Secretary:

Ryssdal: You went on "Charlie Rose" last night and you said Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, would make a fine Secretary of the Treasury when Timothy Geithner steps down. Why do you think so?

Buffett: I think he knows more about markets than probably anybody you could find in the world. And I think that if in the next four years we run into some kind of a chaos in markets some place -- and who knows when that can happen -- that he would think better about it, he would command the respect of foreign leaders that he might have to coordinate with. I just think he'd be the guy I'd pick for that job.

Ryssdal: Let's say the president picks him and he gets confirmed. Is that not a vote then for a little bit less regulation in the financial markets? He is no friend of regulation, as you know.

Buffett: Jamie would not be espousing that, in my view. In the end, the president would set the tone on that. I do think it would represent, on both sides, sort of a bygones be bygones, and business and administration will work together. They'll have things they disagree on -- there's no question about that -- but I think the less harsh the rhetoric and that sort of thing, the better. And I think Jamie would be a terrific Treasury Secretary.

On Ben Bernanke's Policies:

Ryssdal: We talked about Congress a little bit, we talked about the president a little bit. There's another economic center of power in Washington that I want to get your thoughts on: Ben Bernanke, his policy of quantitative easing, and how much more you think the Fed can do to help this economy -- if anything.

Buffett: Well I think they've used up their bullets pretty much. When you drive interest rates to zero and when you buy almost a trillion dollars worth of securities and how you start buying longer-term securities -- you've done your part. I mean, Ben has given up the office; now it's up to Congress.

Buffett was joined in his interview by Fortune senior editor-at-large, Carol Loomis, who compiled and edited articles about Buffett from the past 50 years into a new book called "Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, 1966-2012: A Fortune Magazine Book."

Ryssdal: Carol Loomis, and the question of Warren Buffett and when you knew that he was somebody we all ought to pay attention to.

Loomis: I realized that Warren was unlike anyone I had ever met. When he asked me what I did that morning at the office, I mentioned an obscure footnote that I'd seen in Coastal States Gas -- because I was working on the Fortune 500 -- he knew all about it. I thought, 'my god, this guy knows everything I'd like to know... And we bought the stock soon after that. That is kind of the key to when we knew.

Ryssdal: You put your money where your mouth was.

Loomis: Exactly.

On being a businessman/investor:

Ryssdal: I've been trying to figure out, Mr. Buffett, through the course of reading this book, whether you are an investor or a businessman.

Buffett: Both. Both. And being an investor, you're buying pieces of a business. So you better understand business. And being a businessman, you better understand alternatives for money, in terms of allocating capital -- and therefore you are partially an investor. So I've benefitted in both roles by the fact that I was in the other one.

On tax reform:

Ryssdal: Do you think this is the time that we have an opportunity to actually do something about taxes and reform, and debt and deficit in this country, with the fiscal cliff coming?

Buffett: I think we will. We've kicked it down the road for a long time, but D-Day is here and that doesn't mean we'll get the fiscal cliff problem solved by Dec. 31st. I hope we do, but it may go over into January. But we are going to have to address important policy questions. I think Congress knows it, I think the president knows it, and certainly the American public knows it.

On Warren Buffett as celebrity:

Ryssdal: When you have your annual shareholders' meeting out in Omaha, it is something of a festival. You take questions from the shareholders, you chat with them. What's the weirdest question you've ever gotten?

Buffett: When the stock wasn't doing so well, I had one young woman that stood up and said, 'My dad bought me this stock to put me through college.' And she says, 'Now I'm afraid I'm going to have to go to correspondents' school.' I like tough questions.

On Warren Buffett as "oracle":

Ryssdal: What's the most important thing that anybody has to know about Warren Buffett?

Loomis: I think the central thing about Warren -- and people ought to understand it -- is that he is totally rational about investing. Most people are gripped by emotion when they're considering the investment; the stock goes down and they panic and they sell. Warren just buys more. Because he's got a value theory built into his first purchase... Rationality is an essential part of how he has spent his life investing and building Berkshire Hathaway.

Ryssdal: You have this reputation as the Oracle of Omaha; people hang on your every word. Do you deserve it?

Buffett: No. [laughs] Carol says I'm rational, and I am. But that's not limited to me. I'm in a business where temperament is more important than IQ. I would not do well trying to play top-notch chess; I can't play top-notch bridge, I can play reasonable bridge. I mean, there's all kinds of things I can't do. But I can think rationally about business and investments. Most people let their temperament interfere with that. They excited when other people get excited; they get depressed when other people get depressed.

Ryssdal: It's funny -- you say rational, the word that comes to my mind is cold-blooded. And you don't seem like a cold-blooded kind of guy.

Buffett: No. I have normal human emotions, believe me. But being rational means that when I decide whether a stock is worth $100 a share or $200 a share, I look at the facts and I don't care what other people say. I don't care whether that morning on television people are saying stocks are going to the moon or stocks are going to tank or whatever. I don't pay any attention to what other people are saying about something; I just look at the facts. But I can be an emotional guy too -- just watch me at a Nebraska football game.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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