May 2, 2015 / 10:25 PM / 5 years ago

UPDATE 1-Buffett: stock prices would be high if rates were 'normal'

(Adds Buffett comments on interest rates, China and income inequality)

By Luciana Lopez

OMAHA, Neb., May 2 (Reuters) - Billionaire investor Warren Buffett said on Saturday that stock prices would appear expensive if interest rates normalized from their ultra-low levels.

“If we get back to normal interest rates, stocks at these prices will look high,” said Buffett, speaking at the annual shareholders’ meeting of his sprawling conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Buffett, one of the world’s most famous investors, is widely followed for his advice on finance and life. While he often emphasizes the importance of not basing long-term investing decisions on short-term economic expectations, his views on the U.S. and global economies carry significant weight well beyond Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholders.

Regarding the Federal Reserve’s loose monetary policy, Buffett said he could not have predicted that rates would remain this low for this long without becoming a problem.

“So far, I have been wrong on interest rates. It’s so hard for me to see how, if you toss money from helicopters that eventually you don’t have inflation, but we haven’t.”

The Fed is currently weighing raising rates from their near-zero levels of the financial crisis era, even as questions remain about the strength of growth in the world’s biggest economy.

The current U.S. economic environment will not influence potential acquisitions at Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett added.

Berkshire tends to hold companies for decades - or forever, as Buffett has said in the past - making the short-term economic outlook less valuable as a predictor of a company’s success than longer-term trends.

“Any company that has an economist certainly has one employee too many,” he added.

He also said about the greenback: “I think the dollar will be the world’s reserve currency 50 years from now.”

Nevertheless, Buffett praised China as a rising superpower, saying the country’s population had “found a way to unlock their potential.”

Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway’s vice chairman, echoed that sentiment, noting China’s drive against corruption and its relationship with the United States.

“It’s very important that we like and trust one another,” Munger said.

China surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy in 2010. U.S. President Barack Obama has “pivoted” to Asia, placing much of the focus of American foreign policy on that continent as China becomes more influential on the world stage.

Buffett noted problems in the United States, as well, including concerns about income inequality.

“I don’t have anything against raising the minimum wage but I don’t think we can do it in a significant enough way without creating a lot of distortions.”

He said he favors using the earned income tax credit to help struggling households.

Income inequality has already emerged as a major issue in the 2016 presidential election, with both Republican and Democratic contenders highlighting middle-class insecurities. (Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel in Omaha, Neb.; editing by Jennifer Ablan and Matthew Lewis)

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