Berkshire Hathaway 2009 Annual Meeting Audience Question # 23

How to protect yourself against inflation

Warren Buffett:

Number 11.

Audience Member:

My name is Sam Alter. I’m 11 years old and I’m from Westminster, New Jersey.

My question is, how will inflation affect my generation? And how is Berkshire investing to prepare for this time?

Warren Buffett:

Well, that was about inflation, right? How inflation was going to affect him?

Charlie Munger:

Yeah. How is inflation…?

Warren Buffett:

Well, inflation is going to affect you. You know, the… it’s certain we will have inflation over time.

Paul Volcker got very upset the other day and spoke out about three weeks ago, I guess, when he read that a majority of the Federal Open Market Committee had sort of targeted 2 percent inflation as the number.

And Volker, who came in when inflation was raging and saw the problems of stopping it when it got a momentum of its own, said, “You know, 2 percent sounds great, but in a generation it cuts away purchasing power by 50 percent.”

He was… kind of a long generation, there… but he was right in that once you start thinking about a couple percent, you are on something of a slippery slope.

And we are following policies in this country now to stimulate things, which… stimulate business… which are bound to have some inflationary consequences.

And to the extent that we borrow money from the rest of the world, it would be very human on the part of politicians in the future to decide that they would rather pay the rest of the world back in dollars that are worth far less than the dollars they borrowed.

I mean, it’s the classic way of reducing the impact and cost of external debt. And we’re building up a lot of external debt.

I always find it interesting when politicians now talk about using the taxpayer’s money to do this and the taxpayer’s money to do that and how the taxpayers are paying the bonuses at AIG.

We haven’t raised taxes at all in this country. You know, I mean, taxpayers are paying nothing beyond what they were paying a couple years ago.

Matter of fact, the federal revenues this year, which were close to 2.6 trillion a couple years ago, you know, maybe more like 2.3 trillion. So we are taking less money from the taxpayers.

The people who are really paying for the things we’re doing now will probably be the people who are buying fixed-dollar investments, much of it from the U.S. government, and who will find the purchasing power when they go to redeem those investments to be far less.

So you can… you might say that the AIG bonus is… probably the Chinese have… are the people that are ultimately paying the most in terms of the loss of purchasing power they will have with their holdings of government bonds, U.S. government bonds, many years down the road. But it sounds better to say the taxpayer than to say the Chinese are paying for it.

It’s an interesting situation. I read that comment everyday about how the taxpayers are doing this and that. And, you know, I haven’t had my taxes raised. You haven’t had your taxes raised. They’re giving me $250 bucks back here pretty soon.

The taxpayers haven’t paid anything so far. And my guess is that the ultimate price of much of this will be paid by a shrinkage in the value of… the real value… of fixed-dollar investments down the road.

And that will be the easiest thing to do. And if it’s the easiest thing to do, it’s the most likely thing to have happen.

So you will see plenty of inflation. Now, the best protection against inflation is your own earning power.

If you’re the best teacher, if you’re the best surgeon, if you’re the best lawyer, you know, whatever it may be, you will command a given part of other people’s production of goods and services no matter what the currency is, whether it’s seashells, or Reichsmarks, or dollars.

So your own earning power is the best, by far. If you’re the best journalist, whatever it may be, you will get your share of the national economic pie, regardless of the value of whatever the currency may be, as measured against some earlier standard.

The second best protection is a wonderful business. You know, if you own the Coca-Cola, trademark, Company, you will get a given portion of people’s labor 20 years from now and 50 years from now for your product.

And it’s doesn’t make any difference what’s happened to the price level, generally. Because people will give up three minutes of labor, whatever it may be, to enjoy, you know, 12 ounces, you know, of a product they like.

So those are the… and… those are the great assets, your own earning power first, and then the earning power of a wonderful business that does not require heavy capital investment.

If it requires heavy capital investment, you get killed in inflation. And with those guidelines, I would tell you the best thing to do is invest in yourself.

Charlie?

Charlie Munger:

Yes. The young man should become a brain surgeon and invest in Coca-Cola instead of government bonds.

Warren Buffett:

I get paid by the word. He doesn’t.

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