And how is Warren Buffett faring during the coronavirus? Thankfully, like most of us he’s coping for now.
“I’m doing great,” he told me on Tuesday in Berkshire Hathaway’s offices in Omaha, which would be entirely consistent with what Buffett almost always says when I ask him how he’s doing. (“Never better,” is another typical rejoinder.)
I was in Nebraska to interview Buffett as, among other things, he prepares for the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting on May 2—which he announced on Friday will be greatly scaled down this year. It was a decision Buffett had been mulling for a while, but by this Thursday it became apparent that holding a meeting with tens of thousands of people would be unwise, never mind untenable given potential health advisories prohibiting large gatherings. Buffett told me on a call later in the week that it made him sad, but it was the responsible thing to do.
I have a fair amount of history with Buffett—having first met him some 30 years ago—and have been fortunate enough to speak with him numerous times over the years. People always ask me what he’s like. First of all, and this may be blindingly obvious—there really is no one else like him on the planet. He truly is an American original.
Buffett is fun and fun-loving, genuinely warm and happy—and even charming in a folksy kind of way. He’s also the smartest person you’ll ever meet, and that makes it disarming because at first you might think he’s just a hokey grandpa type (which he is), until he starts waxing on about some esoteric insurance product.
Obviously Buffett’s perspective on recent events is invaluable. “I told you many years ago, if you stick around long enough, you’ll see everything in markets,” Buffett begins with a chuckle. “And it may have taken me to 89 years of age to throw this one into the experience.” His tone soon turned more serious though: “This is a terrible event that’s occurring,” he said. “We don’t know how terrible. It may not turn out to be that big a deal when we get through, but it may turn out to be a very big deal, and we just don’t know.”
I asked him to elaborate.
ANDY SERWER: How concerned are you about the coronavirus situation, Warren?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, you’ve got to defer to the doctors on that, but you know…it is a pandemic. I don’t know exactly what the dictionary definition is, but when you have something that’s in China, and Korea, and Italy, and Iran — I mean, it would meet my definition of a pandemic. No one knows the duration, or dimensions of it now. You can’t know at this point. And what you do know is that the dimensions have changed since a few months ago, and haven’t changed in terms of the possible worst case, but the best case is moving over in that — it’s spread. And, you know, Italy’s a good example. I mean, it has really spread. So we’ve got something that we don’t know how long it will be with us. We don’t know how severe it’ll be. But there will be uncertainty about that for a considerable period of time. There has to be.
We went on to talk about stocks, the price of oil, interest rates, banks, airlines and nearly everything else under the sun in the world of business for the better part of an hour.
But I still wanted to ask him a bit more about the coronavirus. What precautions is he taking right now so as not to catch the disease? Has he changed any of his habits or behavior?
“Well, I’m drinking a little more Coca-Cola, actually. That seems to ward off everything else in life,” he joked.
And he continued as he did so, he said something that may be of keen interest to Berkshire shareholders:
“I’m 89. I just had two different doctors tell me I’m in much better shape than I was a few years ago. I’m not sure what I’m doing to get in better shape. I had an annual heart check where I wear something around my waist… [and] the guys said my — it’s never been better. (There’s that ‘never been better’ line again.)”
“In terms of changing my life, I haven’t really changed a lot. But I could work at home easily, and so could people in the office.”
Has he considered working from home?
“Well, not yet, no, no. But my doctor does tell me, don’t do a lot of traveling into big crowds, and everything. But I have one trip scheduled now, and I’m not changing it.”
OK Warren, hope your trip goes well.
Obviously though, the big takeaway here is that Buffett says doctors tell him: “I’m in much better shape than I was a few years ago.”
Barron’s recently ran a piece suggesting that given Berkshire’s stock market underperformance as of late, the company might be better off without Buffett. CNBC’s Becky Quick recently asked him about this, and Buffett essentially said that he hopes the company does better and better after he’s gone. (Perhaps like Apple after Steve Jobs has done under Tim Cook.) Of course we have no idea how Berkshire will fare when Buffett’s no longer in the picture. At the very least, Berkshire after Buffett won’t be the same. And I think it’s safe to say that America without Buffett won’t be the same either.
So, Barron’s article aside, hearing that Buffett’s in much better shape than he was a few years ago, is good news as far as I’m concerned.
This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on March 14, 2020. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.
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