Explaining Southern California's economy

If BYD is in trouble in China, what does that mean for its HQ in Los Angeles?

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Matthew DeBord

BYD — it stands for "Build Your Dreams" — built a future in Downtown L.A., home to its North American HQ. Unfortunately, it's enduring something of a nightmare with its business at home in China, even with billionaire Warren Buffett invested.

BYD is a Chinese company that has one big thing going for it: It counts Warren Buffett as an investor. But beyond that, the carmaker/batterymaker/solar manufacturer has been enduring a rough ride. It's seen a massive decline in earnings this year, while Buffett has seen his 10 percent stake, purchased in 2008, fall to substantially less than its 2010 peak value of $1.2 billion. BYD (it stands for "Build Your Dreams") executives have been heading for the exits.

There are some complex, interpersonal, inside-Berkshire Hathaway questions about how Buffett and his longtime partner, Charles Munger, came to be involved with BYD. But there's no question about how Los Angeles came to be home to BYD's North American headquarters, opened Downtown about a year ago, in a corridor that's jammed with auto dealerships.

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Things are getting tense in the municipal bond market

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Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

San Bernardino is the latest California city to declare bankruptcy. Is this the beginning of the end of the once-sleepy, rock-solid municipal bond market?

It's hard to tell if this is just general nervousness after a rally or a legitimate reason to worry about an impending wave of defaults on municipal bond debt — something that has basically never happened. But in the span of a few days, billionaire investor Warren Buffett has unloaded $8.25-billion in credit default swaps on muni debt.

Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway sold the CDS to Lehman Brothers prior to the investment bank's epic bankruptcy four years ago, a Chapter 11 for the ages considered by many to be the thing that kicked off the Great Recession. Buffett's CDS amounted to a bet that cities wouldn't default on their debts — a prediction that for the most part has turned out the be true.

However, over the past few months, three California cities — Stockton, Mammoth Lakes, and San Bernardino — have declared bankruptcy. The ratings agency Moody's has stressed that muni defaults are exceptionally rare (as long as the bonds are rated; the Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently noted that unrated defaults happen more frequently, although they're far from common). But Moody's has also announced that it's conducting a review of the debt of cities in California, in light of recent events.

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Warren Buffett is counting on 'hormones' to cure the housing market

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Scott Olson/Getty Images

Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, attends the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett released his annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letter over the weekend. As Marketplace's Heidi N. Moore reported on Monday, this is a much-anticipated and closely studied document. And as one of her sources pointed out, sometimes it's more interesting to focus on what went wrong in Buffett-land than on what went right — because Buffett provides engaging details on both outcomes.

For this letter, you want to zero in on the housing market, which in early 2011 Buffett figured would begin to recover in a "year or so." Wrong! Or to quote the Great Man himself: "dead wrong." Berkshire Hathaway has several housing-related companies in its portfolio, so Buffett would ultimately like to see the long-expected bounce-back. He's optimistic — because you can't fight human nature! Or more accurately, randy human hormones:

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Warren Buffett on investing: It's just so simple!

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Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Time Inc.

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett attends the Fortune Most Powerful Women summit at Mandarin Oriental Hotel on October 5, 2010 in Washington, DC.

Thanks to Henry Blodget at Business Insider for directing to this Fortune except from Warren Buffett's annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. In it, Warren Buffett lays out the commonsense case for avoiding investments in currency (for example, government debt like U.S. Treasuries) and gold (driven by fear) and sticking with stocks. Here's a taste:

My own preference -- and you knew this was coming -- is our third category: investment in productive assets, whether businesses, farms, or real estate. Ideally, these assets should have the ability in inflationary times to deliver output that will retain its purchasing-power value while requiring a minimum of new capital investment. Farms, real estate, and many businesses such as Coca-Cola (KO), IBM (IBM), and our own See's Candy meet that double-barreled test. Certain other companies -- think of our regulated utilities, for example -- fail it because inflation places heavy capital requirements on them. To earn more, their owners must invest more. Even so, these investments will remain superior to nonproductive or currency-based assets.

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