Buffett: Small Businesses Have Become Collateral Damage

buffett small businesses

CNBC Transcript: Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett and Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon speak with CNBC’s “Squawk Box” today on small businesses becoming collateral damage during the coronavirus pandemic.

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BECKY QUICK: Small Business, the pandemic has taken a particularly tough toll on these economic engines of communities across the country and joining us right now to talk about potential solutions, Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, he joins us on the squawk news line. Also David Solomon, the chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, Goldman by the way is announcing a $250 million donation to establish the next generation of the 10,000 small businesses program. Gentlemen wanna thank you both for being here and Warren we’ll start with you, you have not spoken publicly, since the last Annual Meeting back in May for Berkshire Hathaway you weren’t planning on speaking publicly again till the next one, this coming May. Why are you taking time today to talk about this issue right now.

WARREN BUFFETT: Well I think it’s so important that small businesses which have become collateral damage in a war that our country needed to fight but we, in effect, voluntarily entered induced shut down of parts of the economy and there’s many types of small businesses very, very hard, and we made some provision for that. In March, in terms of the cares act, but then nobody really knew how long the self-inflicted recession would last with this particular effect on the small business itself. We need another, we needed another injection to  complete, complete the job and congress is debating that right now and I hope very much that they extend the PPP plan on a large scale to let the people who may see the light at the end of the tunnel get to the end of the tunnel. So, it’s very timely it’s very important. And, and I do think Congress will do something and I hope they step up very soon because every day is important.

QUICK:  May make people wonder why, why big business leaders are stepping out and speaking on behalf of some of those small businesses, what is it that concerns you about this, why is this an issue that you’re really putting yourself out there with.

BUFFETT: Well, big businesses, generally have done very well about travel and entertainment, but later they still have difficulties but the Fed did a terrific job. They saved us from something that would have been a lot worse than 2008 and nine. When they acted in March. So, large companies in the middle of March early March, who were going to have no access to capital. The market just opened wide and the corporate issuance was huge, but these small businesses, receive some help, but it’s not getting them to the end of that. Not getting them to the end of the tunnel, and I can see a situation just take food, food manufacturers the big ones have done terrifically people haven’t quit eating. Yeah, and. And the large grocery chains have done very well margins wine sales. But if you had to get your food In a small restaurant or medium sized restaurant and social distancing was required everything. It just, it just killed the economics for somebody that may have been working for decades with our family to build a business reinvested the earnings in improving their, their establishment and then through no fault of their own an edict comes along with kills all our dreams, and it would be so foolish to not follow through on this and enable those people to get back to where they could do the kind of business they were doing before. It’s an economic war, and, certainly, you know when we went into World War Two. A lot of industries were shut down and everything went over to defense production Well, we’ve shut down a lot of people in this, in this particular induced recession and others are prospering and i think the country owes it to the really millions of small business people, and I’ve met a lot of these people through the Goldman Sachs program. Just renewed the PPP and, and get us to the end of the tunnel.

QUICK: The Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business program started a decade ago and I know you were involved from the, from the very beginning with that with going to some of these graduations and speaking to these classes, you’ve turned down graduation speech requests all the time for all kinds of universities, why has this been one that you’ve said yes to. Why have you had such an involvement and interested in these small businesses Warren.

BUFFETT: Well, I’ve graduated from two universities I didn’t attend either one of those graduations that I’ve been invited to go back a number of times to address groups, I’ve never done it. But the, the Small Business Program, which has been a huge success and due to Goldman Sachs, it’s, it’s just something special. I went to the first graduation at LaGuardia Community College about 10 years ago and there were probably 300 or 400 people in an auditorium and there were less than 30 graduates I think maybe there was 27 or something like that but these people who are working 50 or 60-hour jobs on top of that work nights on the curriculum, attended classes on Saturday, they learned all kinds of skills that were helpful to them probably a lot of them better than what I learned in business school myself. But they sacrificed and, and in that crowd, there would be mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, in-laws and all those people who would help. And there was I don’t know what percent of the 300 were crying but, I was one of them, and it was, it was just amazing to see and, you know, out of that program where we’re that first class there, I’ve been to New Orleans, I’ve been to Chicago, I’ve been to Detroit, I’ve been to Baltimore and then back to LaGuardia again. Every time I’ve seen the graduates I mean my batteries get charged. It’s just a remarkable group, these are people that well you had one on earlier today that I watched, Carla, but they plug away against odds that I never faced. And, you know, they learn things in the curriculum like negotiations. Well, you know, how many business schools really teach negotiations and a lot of them, lot of us learned about that through our parents but, you know, if you haven’t been in the game or haven’t had friends in the game or relatives, you start out with an enormous disadvantage if you don’t know something about a subject like that. Well, this group learned about one item like that, after another. Michael Porter helped in terms of developing the curriculum and it, I just watched them grow and prosper and lives would get changed by it, 97% of the people that started the school and they stuck with it, you know the, but we’ve got 10,800 or so alumni now and the number grows, you know, by the week. And these people were successful but you know I put my money on a woman you had earlier, Carla Walker-Miller. I put my money on her anytime but they do need help and she needs help and she’ll make the most of that help and I will guarantee it she’ll be a success and she’ll employ even more people in the future, lots more people than she does now and of course you’ve already heard that, I think she went up 700% or something like that over recent years. So, but they need, they need help now it’s, it’s if the government comes on and takes your takes your land because it’s for the greater good, you know, they condemn it under eminent domain, they take it and it is for the use of the people but they, but the landowner gets paid, and they take them to fight the epidemic. They are taking away the livelihood from, from really millions of people and those people aren’t prepared to finance the year, the year and a half hiatus in their business and the US government and all the rest of us I think we owe them a continuation of the PPP program and, and, incidentally, you know, there will be fraud connected with it, you know, you try to do something huge like that, so you’ll read stories about people, you know, some people, not small business people so much at all, but you’ve read about a few big places where they’ve taken advantage of it but that that happens in wartime. I mean, don’t, don’t let that turn you away from something that millions of people were being helped and there’s a few cheats involved, I do believe in prosecuting the cheats though very strongly.

QUICK: Hey David, I was at that first graduation 10 years ago too and I remember thinking at the time that you guys would never get to 10,000 small businesses, that was a big number, you are past 10,000 small businesses now and that’s incredibly impressive. And David, just wonder what you’re hearing from those businesses at this point. I know you’ve conducted a survey to hear how they’re faring.

DAVID SOLOMON: So, I appreciate Becky and I appreciate you having us and I also you know want to thank you know Warren for all his support of the program and also Mike Bloomberg, Mary Berra, others who have been part of the advisory board that have helped. I think one of the things we learned over the last 10 years, as we really executed on the program, is you build this community and these, these small business owners are all connected, they learn from each other, and they have a voice and I think one of the things that’s, that’s very interesting we’ve tried to do during the crisis is we’ve created something called 10,000 Small Businesses Voices, where we’ve gone out and surveyed these small business owners to try to get a sense of how they’re being impacted directly and one of the things I’d say is, we all talk a lot about small businesses but really getting down in the field and really seeing, you saw Carla Walker-Miller this morning, you know, I’ve had the opportunity Warren referenced that to travel around the country over the last decade and meet so many people who look just like Carla, and really hear, you know, their struggles and their needs and during this pandemic, they really have needs. 90% of them have exhausted their PPP funding at this point. More than half of them have had to lay off employees and really constrain their businesses. And as you heard from Carla, you know, these small businesses really support our communities, they support families, they’re really a foundation of our economy. And if we lose these small businesses, as a society, we lose big. And so, it’s really important that we listen to their voices and we try to continue to do what we can do to support it and so we, you know, we are excited to continue the program. As you highlighted Becky, we’re committing another $250 million to reup and try to get another 10,000 small businesses through the program and we’re excited about the prospect of that and right now that support I think it’s just very necessary.

QUICK: Very necessary, why David? What are you actually hearing from the businesses in terms of how difficult things are?

SOLOMON: So, we’re hearing these businesses, these, these businesses have cut, nearly 50% of them have cut compensation, nearly 50% or think slightly more than 50% of the business owners are not taking compensation themselves so they can continue to support others. So, this is a huge employment engine for our economy and they’re suffering right now, their businesses have been hurt. I think Warren highlighted appropriately the steps that the Fed and Treasury took to put liquidity into markets has certainly helped large businesses by and large. There are obviously sectors that have been hurt but small businesses don’t have that access, they need, they need capital they need liquidity to bridge them, they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m quite optimistic about what we’re seeing with respect to the vaccine and we will get through this. But, at the moment, while you can see the finish line, I think a lot of these small businesses need help getting across the finish line and that’s what we’re hearing directly from them through 10,000 Voices.

QUICK: Warren, I know you’re only going to be talking about small business today but I just wonder as we watch Congress kind of going back and forth with the bipartisan bill, having some really difficult sticking points that they’re kind of getting caught on at the moment, what would your message be in terms of timeliness, does it matter if it happens now, does it matter if it happens at the beginning of next year.

BUFFETT: It’s gotta happen soon. I mean, their boat’s going down, you know, you need help, and, and a great many of them need to know as David said you know 52% of them are not taking anything out of their business. We’ve, at Berkshire, we bought a few small businesses. We bought from Doris Christopher 40 years ago, well, we bought 20 years ago but 40 years ago, she borrowed $2,500 on her life insurance policy, she had two little girls and that company now has 1,000 people working for it. Mrs. B at the Furniture Mart, you know she came over right from Russia, couldn’t speak English, or read it and arrived in Seattle in 1915 and now that company employs you know she started with $2,500 also the company now employs probably 10,000 people and so it’s the seed corn of the America of 2030 in 2040 and, and we artificially for good reason but we, we took out that section, that supply you know that, particularly in restaurants or gyms, or brick and mortar retail and we are in the process of dashing the dreams that will turn, in many cases, turn into the employers of thousands and thousands and tens of thousands of people later on and those people were not in the position to say well, I’ll just take another $25,000 from grandpa or you know whatever it may be and start all over again. They put everything they got into that, where the business is their end. Congress should act, I mean, if you’re going to act a month from now, why, why kill off another X percent of the people that are potential successes. My procrastination or arguments or political differences, we know it’s a good idea, we’ve already done it. But what we didn’t know was exactly how long the, the pandemic would last and how long people will have lingering fears and so on about going into restaurants or whatever it may be, or gyms, but we know it’s going to come back so let’s get people, let’s get people across the bridge.

QUICK: Hey Warren, I want to thank you for your time today. We appreciate your calling in. And we hope to talk to you again soon.

BUFFETT: Okay and do everything you can to urge your Congressman and Senator to get this one done so, you know, that way they can come home for Christmas. And thanks Becky.

QUICK: Thanks Warren, we appreciate it. In the meantime, David Solomon is going to stay with us talk a little bit more about markets, Wall Street, the economy and much more. And David, why don’t we start with the markets because we continue to see these records that have been set on a very consistent basis from the major averages. Have you been surprised by the market’s performance?

SOLOMON: Well, I think the market, I think the market Becky is, is looking forward, at this point, and as I said a couple of moments ago, there’s a lot of optimism I think appropriately that we’re going to get the pandemic behind us in 2021. There’s certainly been a meaningful recovery in the economy but there’s still a ways to go. I think we’ve replaced about 75% of the economic output that we lost when we shut down the economy in March and April and so I do think we see the light at the end of the tunnel and I think what the market’s doing is the market’s, you know, pulling that sense of optimism through. I do think one of the things that’s interesting and it’s why this conversation that we’ve had this morning is so important, big businesses are recovering, they’re making progress, we almost have a barbell situation and small businesses and certain other parts of the economy are definitely struggling and while the market moves forward, we’ve got to make sure we’re taking care of these other areas where things are going to be a little tougher you can’t you can’t turn a light switch on and off when you think about the service economy, which so many of these small businesses really affect, even as we make progress with the vaccine and we get to a better place economically, you can’t just flip the switch on and have all the jobs come back, it takes some time to rebuild. And so, I think the market’s looking forward appropriately but I, you know, I do think we’ve got a lot of uncertainty still as to how we navigate the next few months. I heard Dr. Gottlieb on, you know, just before and, and he was going through with Joe, you know, a handful of statistics that show just how difficult we still have in the weeks ahead to navigate, but we will get through this and then we’ll continue, you know, I think to move forward in a constructive way with, with a pickup in demand and I think the market’s anticipating that.

QUICK: David, I know you’re in a quiet period right now and can’t comment specifically on what’s happening with Goldman Sachs, but Jamie Dimon said the other day that maybe the banks have over-reserved being super cautious with this. Would you agree with that?

SOLOMON: I don’t have a general comment on reserves broadly, but I think the economic scenario that is unfolding is certainly at a base, a better scenario than what everybody anticipated back in March, April, May. And so, if you think about that at a high level, and you think about the way, you know, people economically model and think about reserves, where certainly the base case today is better than what people expected as we were just into the depths of the pandemic at the beginning of this back in the spring.

JOE KERNEN: Hey David, earlier we were talking about the developments of 2020 and we were looking for a new word other than extraordinary. And it also applied to what the Fed has orchestrated this year. Extraordinary doesn’t really cover it. We need a couple – extraordinary squared maybe. So not everything the Fed does goes to where it’s needed I would imagine. And they said that’s fine. We’ll overshoot. We’ll do more than we need to even if it’s not all going to where, you know, it’s filling a hole. It’s just, you know, it’s just additional money. Given those IPOs last week and some of the froth that maybe we’re seeing in certain areas, do you think that there’s some asset inflation? That’s that there is going to be a reckoning with at some point because of all the cheap money?

SOLOMON: I think that the cheap money has an impact, Joe. There’s no question that the Fed actions and the monetary policy and the relief was very, very necessary. You heard Warren say it earlier. I think through the action, we certainly staved off something that could have been a lot worse, but there’s a consequence to that. And there’s no question that people are out on the risk curve and that is certainly inflating asset prices. People who are long assets have benefited from this. Some of what’s going on when you translate to the IPO market is obviously directly related to that. And I think some of that is related to certain other phenomenons. I think one of the things that’s interesting is there’s a lot more retail participation in these IPOs. I think one of the things to contemplate or think about, Joe, is –  and you know, all of us that are on this call remember well, you know, the period of 2000 and 2001 – there are real differences. If you wanted to buy a stock back then, you had to go and open up a brokerage account you had to sign papers directly. You know, technology enables and it makes it a lot easier and it broadens participation. And so, there’s a lot of retail participation in a bunch of these IPOs. I think that’s something to watch, something to be cautious about. I think a bunch of these are great businesses, but obviously, the market at the moment is pricing in, you know, perfect execution and enormous growth for a very long period of time. And my guess is there’ll be a rebalancing of that over time for sure.

ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: David, related to that, you saw a firm and roadblocks postpone their IPO after the Airbnb IPO which I know, Goldman advised on. Are you advising companies to hold off? Do you look at the Airbnb IPO as a failing in so far as not being able to adequately or accurately forecast, you know, what the market looked like at that moment?

SOLOMON: We’re obviously involved in a number of IPOs, Andrew, and we’re not advising people to hold off. And it’s actually interesting there hasn’t been a lot written about this. The process in some of these recent IPOs, including Airbnb, we’ve developed much more transparent market information for the company where they can really see real time the demand that’s coming in and they make decisions around this. And I think one of the things that’s not well understood is the companies themselves are choosing their investors in the context of this. They have much better transparency than they would have had five or 10 years ago about the choices they want to make around this. But despite making those choices, if people are going to come into the aftermarket and buy the stock and continue to run the stock price up, it’s, you know, that’s something that’s very, very hard to control and very hard to think about. So a lot of these companies are taking a long term approach, they want to build a reasonable shareholder base and they’re very thoughtful about that. They have better transparency and also, I would just highlight they’re selling very small portions of a company and they really are trying to position for the long run. And so, I do think we’re at a moment in time where there’s a lot of euphoria. I personally am concerned about that. I don’t think in the long run that’s healthy. I think it will rebalance over time as it always does. But I think there are a lot of great companies that really have extraordinary growth prospects that are going to continue to come to market. And obviously, we’re reaching the Christmas holidays, so that all slowed down and my guess is it will pick up again in January.

QUICK: David, I want to thank you very much for your time this morning. Wish we had more time to chat with you. I do realize you’ve got board meeting starting and you have to run for that, but come back soon. Thank you for your time. We appreciate it.

SOLOMON: I really appreciate your having me. I think the discussion on small businesses is so important. We continue to be excited about 10,000 small businesses, and I wish all three of you a wonderful holiday and I hope everybody stays safe and healthy.

QUICK: David, thank you. Happy Holidays to you. We’ll talk soon.

SOLOMON: Thank you very much.

 

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