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The Tapeworm in Buffett's Side

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The Oracle of Omaha has spoken. I wonder if any politicians will listen?

In an interview on CNBC today, Warren Buffett called the high cost of health care a "tapeworm eating at our economic body." With 80 subsidiaries under Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A  ) (NYSE: BRK-B  ) , he certainly knows a thing or two about how American companies are struggling with rising health-care costs.

The problem basically boils down to competition with other countries. We spend close to 17% of our gross domestic product on health care, which is integrated into the cost of goods and services we produce. Everything that we export has to compete against products made in other countries where health-care costs are less than 10% of their GDP. The same is true for products made and consumed locally that have to compete against imports from other countries.

The upward trend -- we used to be at just 5% of GDP -- is unsustainable. The worst possibility, as Buffett sees it, is keeping with the status quo. Buffett would take the Senate version of the health-care bill if he had to, but would much rather see real reform that would make a major dent in the cost of care.

If Buffett doesn't get his wish, the biggest opportunity for investors may be to look abroad. Investing in Airbus' parent company, EADS, instead of Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) , for instance.

You could also look for American companies that have shifted some of their workforce abroad. Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iPhones are made in China, and Palm's Pre is made in Taiwan. But who'll be able to afford them if Americans' discretionary funds are increasingly eaten up by health-care costs?

The best move then, might be to invest in companies that have a strong presence in their home country, essentially betting that their economies will grow faster than ours -- think Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU  ) instead of Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) or China Mobile vs. Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) .

While it's great that Buffett is highlighting the problem, he didn't have any specific solutions, except for politicians to call on the experts to help propose solutions. Considering that the president has already called for suggestions and the two sides are very far apart on a solution, I wouldn't count on Buffett's involvement solving much.

Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Baidu and Google are Rule Breakers selections. Apple and Berkshire Hathaway are Stock Advisor picks. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Brian Orelli, Ph.D., doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and China Mobile. The cost of the Fool's disclosure policy hasn't risen once since its inception.

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  • Report this Comment On March 02, 2010, at 7:33 AM, konkablue wrote:

    I don't buy into the myth that Buffett HAS to buy huge companies. He needs to hire a larger staff to help him search for good opportunities. It is likely that there are numerous mid-sized companies that offer better price-growth potential than a BNSF, but he and Charlie can't do it all.

  • Report this Comment On March 02, 2010, at 7:33 AM, konkablue wrote:


  • Report this Comment On March 02, 2010, at 12:33 PM, thenewt wrote:

    Shouldn't taxes be part of this evaluation? If you're going to compare American companies to foreign, taxes are potentially a huge difference. Airbus is mentioned. It would be interesting to see a comparison of Airbus's health care cost as well as it's tax load. then compare that to Boeing's. For a European company, I would expect lower health care costs would be offset by higher taxes.

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