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Warren Buffett says economy is slowing amid virus fears

Billionaire Warren Buffett says the viral outbreak in China has slowed economic growth, but he remains confident in the long-term future of American business.

Buffett appeared on CNBC Monday after releasing his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders over the weekend.

Buffett said the reports he gets from Berkshire’s assortment of more than 90 businesses and stock investments show that business is a little softer now than it was six months ago, but he remains optimistic.

“Twenty or 30 years from now, American business — and probably all over the world — will be far better than it is today,” Buffett said.

Many of Berkshire’s roughly 1,000 Dairy Queen stores in China are closed and many of Berkshire’s other companies are suffering supply chain problems.

The company remains a net buyer of stocks over time, and Buffett doesn’t expect that to change because of the coronavirus outbreak.

“This is scary stuff. I don’t think it should affect what you do in stocks,” Buffett said. “In terms of the human race, it’s scary stuff when you have a pandemic.”

The new virus took aim at a broadening swath of the globe Monday. Europe and the Middle East scrambled to limit the spread of an outbreak that showed signs of stabilizing at its Chinese epicenter.

Worldwide, the number of people sickened by the coronavirus topped 79,000.

Buffett touched on politics during the interview. The long-time Democrat said he would support Mike Bloomberg over the current front runner in the Democratic race, Bernie Sanders, but he didn’t discuss all the top candidates.

“I would have no trouble voting for Mike Bloomberg,” Buffett said.

In terms of his own company, Buffett said he remains confident in the future of Berkshire Hathaway after he is gone. Investors speculate about Buffett’s successor because he is 89 although he has no plans to retire. Buffett said Berkshire’s board talks about succession at every meeting and knows which company manager it would pick as Berkshire’s next CEO.

“We’re well prepared on succession,” Buffett said.

Buffett defended the company’s conglomerate structure because it allows him to move money around between Berkshire’s different companies without tax consequences. He said it doesn’t make sense to consider splitting Berkshire up.

“You cannot dispose of the entire business — business by business — without having very substantial tax liability. It would not produce a gain,” Buffett said. “On the other hand, having them together produces some very valuable synergies.”

Berkshire owns roughly 10% of the four largest airlines, but Buffett said it’s very unlikely that Berkshire would ever buy any airline outright because airlines are a regulated business, so owning one would likely bring complications with Berkshire’s other investments.

Berkshire continues to hold roughly $128 billion in cash and short-term investments because Buffett said it is difficult to find acquisitions at reasonable prices. He said businesses are selling at a premium partly because it is so easy to borrow money for acquisitions.

“We want to be prepared for anything,” he said.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. owns more than 90 companies, including BNSF railroad, Geico insurance and utilities. The company also has major investments in such companies as Apple, American Express, Coca-Cola and Bank of America.

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