By Jonathan Stempel and Trevor Hunnicutt and Jennifer Ablan
Feb 23rd 2019 3:23PM
(Adds comment, details from Buffett shareholder letter and Berkshire results)
By Jonathan Stempel, Trevor Hunnicutt and Jennifer Ablan
Feb 23 (Reuters) - Warren Buffett on Saturday appeared to fault U.S. President Donald Trump for taking too much credit for the nation's economic growth, while acknowledging that market conditions are making it tough for his Berkshire Hathaway Inc to find more big companies to buy.
Buffett lamented these states of affairs in his widely read annual letter to Berkshire shareholders.
Accompanying the letter was more bad news, that sinking stock prices and a big writedown for the company's Kraft Heinz Co investment fueled a $25.39 billion fourth-quarter net loss, and caused Berkshire to post its lowest annual profit since 2001.
But many of Berkshire's more than 90 businesses, such as the Geico auto insurer and BNSF railroad, performed well, and quarterly operating profit rose 71 percent.
11 ways Warren Buffett lives frugally
11 ways Warren Buffett lives frugally
Warren Buffett’s House Is the Same One He Bought in 1958
Billionaires live in mansions, right? Not Buffett.
He lives in the same residence in Omaha, Neb., that he bought in 1958 for $31,500, the equivalent of roughly $270,000 in 2017 dollars. Buffett has no intention of putting his own home up for sale. "I wouldn't trade it for anything," he told CNBC earlier this year.
In today's money, Buffett would have paid about $41 per square foot for the 6,570-square-foot home. But these days, you'll pay about $143 per square foot for a home in Omaha of that size and era, based on the listing of a home in the neighborhood of the multi-billionaire.
If you want to live like Buffett, consider buying less home than you can afford. Instead of paying pricey mortgage payments, you'll be able to put more of your money toward savings, retirement or vacations.
And if you must take out a loan, perhaps get a 30-year mortgage — it's "the best instrument in the world," Buffett told CNBC. In fact, Buffett took out a 30-year mortgage in 1971 when he bought a vacation home in Laguna Beach, Calif.
"If you're wrong and rates go to 2 percent, which I don't think they will, you pay it off," he said. "It's a one-way renegotiation. It is an incredibly attractive instrument for the homeowner and you've got a one-way bet."
Wrong. Adopting Buffett's lifestyle doesn't include paying high prices for daily gourmet French toast prepared in the comforts of your own home.
When it comes to food, the billionaire investor has been known to save money by taking the fast-food route. In fact, he might kick off his day with a trip to McDonald's during his five-minute drive to work, reports CNBC.
If he's feeling rich, he'll splurge by spending $3.17 on a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit sandwich. If the market's down, he might spend $2.95 on a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich instead. On a really bad day, he buys two sausage patties for $2.61, puts them together and washes it down with a Coke he pours himself.
Buffett also is known to opt for cheap food when he's on the road — but forget the cholesterol-soaked bacon and eggs at a local restaurant. Buffett's travel breakfast might consist of a pack of Oreos, his friend Bill Gates — yes, his good buddy is the Microsoft founder — wrote on his blog.
"One thing that was surprising to learn about Warren is that he has basically stuck to eating what he liked when he was 6 years old," Gates wrote. "He did move past baby food, of course, but he mostly eats hamburgers, ice cream and Coke."
Buffett explained his diet in a 2015 interview with Fortune: "I checked the actuarial tables, and the lowest death rate is among 6-year-olds. So I decided to eat like a 6-year-old. It's the safest course I can take."
In a BBC documentary, his daughter, Susie Buffett, said he bought cars that he could get at reduced prices — like those that had been damaged by hail. The cars were fixed and didn't look hail-damaged and became a regular part of the Buffett lifestyle.
"You've got to understand, he keeps cars until I tell him, 'This is getting embarrassing — time for a new car,'" said his daughter in the documentary.
Buffett also told Forbes in 2014 about his car-buying habits — or lack thereof. "The truth is, I only drive about 3,500 miles a year so I will buy a new car very infrequently," he said.
Remember this the next time you're in the market for a car: Cars tend to depreciate quickly, so it can be better for your finances if you try to keep your well-working car for as long as possible — or at least opt to buy a used car instead of new.
Buffett Enjoys Affordable Hobbies
A commitment to live like Warren Buffett doesn't mean all work and no play. After all, even billionaires have hobbies. But compared to other famous CEOs, investors and entrepreneurs, Buffett's hobbies are much more affordable. For example, he enjoys playing bridge.
"If I play bridge and a naked woman walks by, I don't even see her," laughed Buffett during a CBS News "Sunday Morning" interview. Yep, Buffett is a self-proclaimed bridge addict, and you might even catch him playing the game about 12 hours a week.
"I one time said that I wouldn't mind going to jail if I had the right three cellmates so we can play bridge all the time," he also said in the interview.
When Buffett's not busy being a business mogul, you might find him strumming his ukulele and singing as well. He's played for investors and at charity events. A video of him playing the instrument with Gates even went viral after it was posted on Gates' blog in 2016.
Buffett Treats His Friends Well, But Not Extravagantly
What do you give a friend who's also a billionaire? Buffett's long-standing friendship with Gates is legendary. The Microsoft magnate explained on his blog what's kept their friendship strong over the years:
"I've learned many things from Warren over the last 25 years, but maybe the most important thing is what friendship is all about," he said. "It's about being the kind of friend you wish you had yourself. Everyone should be lucky enough to have a friend who is as thoughtful and kind as Warren. He goes out of the way to make people feel good about themselves and share his joy about life."
And those special touches don't have to be expensive. For example, Buffett drives personally to the airport to pick up Gates whenever he's in town, calls frequently and sends news clippings by mail that he thinks Gates and his wife will enjoy.
Those special touches that mean a lot to friends just might be the best takeaway for those seeking to live the Warren Buffett lifestyle.
Buffett Used a Nokia Flip Phone Long After Smartphones Existed
Buffett likely won't be shelling out $999 for the iPhone X. The billionaire revealed in a 2013 interview with CNN that he still used a Nokia flip phone.
"This is the one Alexander Graham Bell gave me," he joked about his phone. "I don't throw anything away until I've had it 20 or 25 years."
While it's tempting to always splurge on the latest technology, take a page from Buffett's book and only upgrade your phone when you really need to. If you insist on buying the latest iPhone to hit the market, look for other ways to save on your phone expenses, such as using a no-contract phone plan or buying a family plan to share data.
Buffett Doesn’t Splurge on Wallets and Designer Suits
Buffett revealed in the CNN interview that he's used the same black wallet for 20 years. He also shuns high-end designer suits. Instead, he exclusively wears suits created by a Chinese sewing entrepreneur named Madam Li, whom he met in 2007.
"They fit perfectly," he said of the suits in a 2017 CNBC interview. "We get compliments on them. It's been a long time since I got compliments on how I looked but, since I am wearing Madame Li's suits, I get compliments all the time."
The takeaway: Opt for quality goods that will last you a long time, rather than buying something just because it has a brand name attached to it.
Buffett Clips Coupons
Buffett proves that even billionaires still appreciate an opportunity to save money. In Bill and Melinda Gates' 2017 annual letter, Bill recalled a trip he took with the investor, during which Buffett paid for their fast-food lunch using coupons. He even provided photographic proof of this.
"Remember the laugh we had when we traveled together to Hong Kong and decided to get lunch at McDonald’s? You offered to pay, dug into your pocket, and pulled out…coupons!" Bill wrote. "Melinda just found this photo of me and 'the big spender.' It reminded us how much you value a good deal."
Save on your next purchase — even if it's something as inexpensive as a McDonald's meal — by using applicable discounts, which you can easily find on online coupon sites.
Buffett Has Worked in the Same Office Building for More Than 50 Years
Buffett has remained in the same office building since he joined Berkshire Hathaway in the 1960s.
"It's a different sort of place," Buffett said of the company's Omaha headquarters in the 2017 HBO documentary "Becoming Warren Buffett," CNBC reports. "We have 25 people in the office and if you go back, it's the exact same 25. The exact same ones. We don't have any committees at Berkshire. We don't have a public relations department. We don't have investor relations. We don't have a general counsel. We just don't go for anything that people do just as a matter of form."
Even if you're not a business owner, you can still benefit from Buffett's way of thinking. It boils down to the old saying: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Buffett Thinks Outside the Box to Save Money
In Roger Lowenstein's biography of the businessman, "Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist," the author says that after Buffett's first child was born, he converted a dresser drawer into a space for the baby to sleep instead of spending money on a bassinet, reports Forbes. When it came to the family's second child, he borrowed a crib rather than buy one.
Perhaps making your baby sleep in a drawer seems a little extreme, but it's just an example of thinking outside the box. Use resources that are already available to you to prevent unnecessary spending.
Buffett Values Relationships Over Material Things
Buffett explained his choice to live frugally during a 2009 Q&A session he conducted with a group of business school students.
"You can’t buy health and you can’t buy love," said Buffett, according to the Underground Value blog. "I’m a member of every golf club that I want to be a member of [...] I’d rather play golf here with people I like than at the fanciest golf course in the world. [...] I’m not interested in cars, and my goal is not to make people envious."
And in a 2017 interview with People, Susie Buffett said of her father: "...it’s really true that he does not care about having a bunch of money." Instead, she said, he emphasizes family.
“I don’t think people realize, he’s got a bunch of great-grandchildren and he could tell you everything about what they’re all doing. He knows every one of those kids and he knows about their lives,” she said.
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Buffett uses his shareholder letters to focus on Berkshire's operating businesses, tout the strength of the U.S. economy, and criticize thinking and business practices that get in the way.
The 88-year-old said Berkshire's success has been in part a product of "the American tailwind" that has enabled the country to enjoy "almost unbelievable prosperity."
He said that since he began investing in 1942, that prosperity has been overseen by seven Republican and seven Democratic presidents, through times of war and financial crisis, and gained in a bipartisan manner.
Trump often takes credit for upbeat news on the economy and stock market, sometimes tying them to his economic policies.
Buffett, who supported Democrat Hillary Clinton in her 2016 White House run, said no one person should claim credit when things go well.
"It is beyond arrogance for American businesses or individuals to boast that they have 'done it alone,'" Buffett wrote.
Buffett also made a possible oblique criticism of Trump's bragging about U.S. economic performance, including relative to other countries such as China, where Berkshire invests in electric car maker BYD Co.
The United States, according to Buffett, should "rejoice" when other countries have bright futures.
"Americans will be both more prosperous and safer if all nations thrive," he wrote. "At Berkshire, we hope to invest significant sums across borders."
The White House was not immediately available for comment. Berkshire did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Thomas Russo, a partner at Gardner Russo & Gardner in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and longtime Berkshire investor, said: "It sent an extraordinarily strong message about how open markets and free trade end up helping all participants do better."
LOOKING FOR ELEPHANTS
Part of the reason Buffett may be looking to invest abroad is that he is struggling to find big investments at home, and does not expect that to change soon.
Berkshire has not make a major acquisition since paying $32.1 billion for aircraft parts maker Precision Castparts in January 2016.
Buffett said the near-term prospects for more acquisitions were "not good," because prices are "sky-high" for businesses that had decent long-term prospects.
While Buffett said the thought of an "elephant-sized" acquisition causes his heart to beat faster, the "disappointing reality" was that Berkshire would likely in 2019 use some of its $111.9 billion of cash to buy more stocks.
Berkshire ended 2018 with $172.8 billion of equities, but many of these suffered double-digit price declines in the quarter, including a 30 percent slide in its largest holding, iPhone maker Apple Inc.
Those declines were a major factor in Berkshire's huge quarterly loss, and its 91 percent drop in full-year net income to $4.02 billion from $44.94 billion the prior year, when it benefited from a lower corporate tax rate.
Accounting rules require Berkshire to report unrealized stock gains and losses with net income, causing huge quarterly swings that Buffett says are usually meaningless.
Operating profit in the quarter totaled $5.72 billion, or $3,484 per Class A share, topping analyst forecasts, and for the year rose 71 percent to $24.78 billion.
The operating businesses are overseen by Vice Chairmen Greg Abel and Ajit Jain, freeing Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, 95, to focus on capital allocation.
Results also were hurt by a $3.02 billion writedown for intangible assets that Buffett said was "almost entirely" attributable to Kraft Heinz, in which Berkshire owns a 26.7 percent stake.
The packaged food company on Thursday shocked investors when it reported a $15.4 billion writedown for Kraft, Oscar Mayer and other assets, slashed its dividend, and said the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission was examining its accounting practices.
While dated Saturday, Buffett's shareholder letter is written well in advance, and did not discuss Kraft Heinz's travails or the day-to-day management of that company by 3G Capital, the Brazilian firm and Buffett business partner.
Berkshire bought back about $418 million of its stock in the quarter. It has recouped some losses on its stock holdings this year, though the Standard & Poor's 500 remains 4 percent below where it was at the end of September.
(Reporting by Jennifer Ablan, Trevor Hunnicutt and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Andrea Ricci)